‘Landmark moment’: UK rejoins Horizon Europe research funding programme

The UK has formally rejoined the Horizon Europe science programme as an associate country, three years after it left the EU research and innovation scheme in the wake of the UK’s departure from the European Union.

The UK officially became an associate of the scheme yesterday, opening the door for UK researchers to participate in the programme, which supports a range of climate science and clean technology projects as part of its mission to tackle the world’s “biggest global challenges”.

Under the terms of an association agreement deal finalised in early December by EU and UK negotiators, UK researchers will be able to participate in the programme on the same terms as researchers from other assoicated countries, including leading consortia and gaining access to funding.

Horizon Europe is the biggest international research and innovation programme in the world, with the EU having set aside £82bn from its budget for 2021 and 2027 for the scheme.

Associated countries, including Albania, Armenia, Norway, Serbia, Turkiye and Tunisia and now the UK, are also expected to make financial contributions to the scheme. The UK is expected to contribute almost €2.6bn per year on average for its participation to both Horizon Europe and Copernicus.

Writing on social media site X yesterday, UK Science Minister Michelle Donelan celebrated the UK’s re-accession to Horizon Europe. “Fantastic opportunities as the UK officially joins Horizon from today,” she wrote. “Alongside the EU and global partners, UK scientists, researchers and businesses can lead the way in scientific innovation, creating new jobs and boosting the economy.”

From today, the UK will also participate in the EU’s Copernicus scheme, the Earth observation component of the European Union’s Space programme. The scheme offers information services that draw from satellite data, and backs projects designed contribute to emissions reduction and the objectives of the EU’s flagship climate policy package the European Green Deal.

In a statement published yesterday, the EU Commission hailed the UK’s joining of the two schemes as a “landmark moment” for scientific and space collaboration between the bloc and UK.

It said the UK’s association to Horizon Europe would deepen the EU’s relationship with the UK in research and innovation, bringing together research communities to “tackle global challenges such as climate change, digital transformation and health”.

“I am happy to welcome the UK back to the Horizon family,” said Iliana Ivanova, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. “This is a real milestone, a clear win-win for both sides and for global scientific progress. Together, we can push further and faster.”

With ties to both programmes and financial contributions effective as of 1 January, the European Commission and the UK government have pledged to pursue joint outreach and engagement activities designed to encourage the participation of UK entities within both schemes.

Leading UK scientific organisations have called on researchers to submit proposals for the scheme by January 17, as part of a government effort to surpass pre-Brexit levels of Horizon projects, according to the Financial Times.

Observers have warned the UK is rejoining the programme on less favourble terms than when it was a fully-fledged member of the programme.

Speaking to reporters in December, Donelan conceded the new deal would not give the UK voting rights in Horizon Europe, despite having led 25 per cent of projects when it was a member pre-Brexit.

Additionally, under the Horizon Europe Regulation, the programme may limit participation in activity related to strategic EU assets, interests, autonomy or security to legal entities established in Member States or to legal entities established in specified associated or other third countries.

“As for all third countries, the EU will assess UK participants’ access to such strategic parts of the Horizon Europe programme,” its website states.

Given the UK has not been fully part of Horizon Europe for the past two years, the Commission and UK have agreed a temporary mechanism to address any risk of “critical underperformance” by the UK until 2027.

The UK will need to pay additional fees if the grants it receives are more than eight per cent higher than the operational contributions it has made for any two consecutive years. However, it will be able to claw back funds if the money it gets out in any given year is more than 16 per cent lower than its operational contributions.

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