Prior to Brexit, the UK had as much right to EU science funding as any other member of the bloc. But owing to the tangled, often-stalled negotiations between the newly Brexited country and the remaining EU members, scientists in the UK have found themselves unable to access the same pots of research money, and unable to collaborate with EU researchers, as they could in previous years.
Most prominently, the EU has blocked the UK’s involvement in the Horizon Europe programme—worth €95.5bn (£84.1bn) in total—for more than two years, owing to the vexed issue of trade across the Northern Irish border.
This month, an editorial in the scientific journal Nature argued that, without resolution of this issue, and of the general question of UK-EU collaboration on science, a “sensible science policy” for the UK would be “impossible”.
As of Monday, that resolution might have begun. At her joint press conference with Rishi Sunak announcing the Windsor Framework, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, said that the UK and the EU could “immediately” begin talks on new scientific collaboration as part of Horizon Europe.
Nearly all major UK research organisations have reacted very positively to the announcement. Dame Anne Johnson, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said that “UK participation in Horizon Europe is the best possible outcome for research and for the health of people everywhere”.
The President of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, argued that “the sooner we join [the EU research schemes], the better”.
Others have urged caution. Ben Johnson, executive head of Strategic Research and Innovation Development at the University of Strathclyde and a former government science policy adviser, pointed out to the i that Sunak conspicuously didn’t echo von der Leyen’s comment about the Horizon programme at Monday’s press conference.
That might indicate unspoken doubts on the part of the Prime Minister about whether the UK really will re-join Horizon.
Sunak, notes Johnson, was not thought to be a supporter of re-joining the programme while he was Chancellor; while campaigning to be Conservative Party leader, he promised a “better” alternative to Horizon Europe – presumably on the assumption that a resolution to the Northern Ireland talks would be further off into the future.
Because Horizon is an expensive programme to be a part of, it’s also arguable whether it represents value for money, compared to relying only on domestic funding – and this might be what gives Sunak pause.
But in science policy, money isn’t all that matters: in an era of growing cross-country collaboration, the UK would take a reputational hit if it refused to rejoin the collaborations with EU countries.
Researchers themselves, who often thrive on international collaboration, would find the idea of “going it alone” unacceptable. Johnson notes that Sunak may be prepared to take the worse financial option if it means growing the UK’s reputation as a serious scientific heavyweight.
Those collaborations won’t be straightforward rebuild. James Wilsdon, Professor of Research Policy at University College London, told the i that the “drip-drip acid of uncertainty”—yesterday’s announcement was not necessarily predicted in advance—“has steadily pushed [the UK] 50% down overall” in levels of collaboration with other EU researchers.
Even if the UK rejoins Horizon within the next few months, Wilsdon predicts that it will take “two or three years” to get the UK’s level of scientific participation back to where it was pre-Brexit.
We can expect to see other benefits, too, even setting aside any financial downsides: collaboration might also improve the quality of our research. Richard Jones, Professor of Materials Physics and Innovation Policy at the University of Manchester, argued in an email to the i that “UK academic science has been sharpened by involvement in the rigorous competitions in the European Research Council”.
He also noted that the benefits of UK-EU collaboration extend not just to university research, but to innovative companies in the UK, “whose involvement in Europe-wide supply chains is strengthened” when UK-EU collaborations are up and running.
There will certainly be strong pressure applied by scientists to Sunak and the new science minister, Michelle Donelan, to rejoin Horizon Europe.
It seems more than likely—though not assured—that this pressure will have the desired effect. As Ben Johnson put it: “the UK science sector shouldn’t pop any champagne corks just yet – but would be justified in putting a bottle on ice.”