It’s official – the UK will rejoin the European Union’s flagship research and innovation programs Horizon Europe and Copernicus, after being locked out for over two and a half years due to Brexit.
Last week’s announcement ends years of uncertainty for UK scientists, who have been stuck in limbo since the country left the EU. But the deal comes at a cost, with the UK agreeing to pay in almost €2.6 billion per year to participate.
This will give UK scientists full access again to EU research grants and networks. For UK-based winners of prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants, it ends the nightmare scenario of having to move abroad to access funding.
While the sum is sizeable, it’s likely a price the UK has been willing to pay to regain influence. British universities and companies have historically won far more funding out of EU science programs than the country puts in.
The deal allows UK researchers to participate fully in Horizon Europe from January 2024, including that year’s calls and work programs.
For the remainder of 2023, UK scientists can still join Horizon consortia, but will have to rely on temporary UK funding rather than EU grants.
There are also concessions on the UK’s late entry. If British researchers win significantly fewer grants than the UK’s contribution—over 16% less—automatic corrections will compensate the UK.
With its strong research base, the UK is expected to quickly make up lost ground when terms resume in 2024. But there are still big uncertainties ahead.
Most notably, the UK will not rejoin Euratom, the EU’s nuclear research programme tied to Horizon Europe. That means UK researchers will stay shut out of ITER, the experimental fusion reactor being built in France.
The UK is to pursue its own domestic fusion strategy instead, backed by “up to £650m” in public funding. But its withdrawing from ITER—where Europe hosts global partners such as India, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea—could turn into a blow to UK influence in this critical emerging field.
The episode encapsulates the tensions of Brexit. While allowing the UK to forge its own path, opting out of key collaborative European initiatives also risks undermining its world-leading science.
With Horizon Europe association finally secured, UK science has regained its seat at the table. But as the ITER snub shows, important bridges have already been burned along the way.
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