UK to rejoin EU Horizon research programme


The UK has struck a deal to rejoin the EU’s Horizon research programme, according to officials in London and Brussels, in a move welcomed by scientists and business.

Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, is expected to confirm on Thursday that Britain will take up its much-delayed associate membership of the €95.5bn Horizon programme, drawing a line under months of tense negotiations.

Horizon is the world’s largest multilateral research programme, bringing together companies and scientists from more than 40 countries exploring areas from climate change to cancer and artificial intelligence.

Sunak has personally overseen the details of the deal, having told aides he was sceptical about whether Horizon offered the UK value for money. The agreement will mark a further deepening of post-Brexit ties between Britain and the EU.

“Our priority and preference is to associate to Horizon,” Sunak told MPs on Wednesday. “But we want to make sure that this is on terms that are both right for the British taxpayer and for British science and research.”

The Horizon deal also involves the UK rejoining Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation space programme, according to one person briefed on the agreement.

Sunak’s allies said the deal built on improved relations between London and Brussels following an accord in February that ended a bitter stand-off over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.

“This is part of that reset,” said one. “It also shows what you can achieve with hard work.” Downing Street declined to comment.

The UK negotiated associate membership of the Horizon programme as part of the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement between Britain and the EU, but was blocked from taking it up because of the protracted dispute over Northern Ireland’s trading rules. 

Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a representative body for scientists, welcomed the prospect of a deal.

“If confirmed, this will bring a burst of joy to UK science, as well as lasting value to the economy and to people’s wellbeing and prosperity,” she said.

William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the business lobby group had told ministers that rejoining Horizon would attract investment and deepen international collaboration in science, research and higher education.

“If an associate membership deal for the UK is confirmed, this will provide much-needed certainty and kick-start new research opportunities for key strength areas of the UK economy, such as life sciences,” he added.

Optimism earlier this year that Britain and the EU could swiftly reach a deal on Horizon foundered on disputes over the UK’s financial contributions to the programme.

Negotiations have focused partly on the financial “correction mechanism” that determines what happens if the UK extracts less in value from the programme than it contributes in payments.

As a member of the EU, the UK frequently received more than it contributed to Horizon as a result of the grant-winning prowess of its universities, but as an associate member this is ruled out.

“It is important that science collaborates in an efficient manner,” said Martin Smith, head of policy at the Wellcome Trust, the charitable foundation.

“A Horizon Europe deal will mean the UK can regain its rightful claim to being part of the global endeavour to solve the big scientific challenges of our time.”

EU academics also welcomed the move. “It is excellent news for researchers on both sides of the Channel who will be able to combine their efforts at a time when research is key to the competitiveness of Europe,” said Arancha González, dean of the Paris School of International Affairs.

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