UK participation in the Horizon Europe programme

This article explores the significance of the agreement on UK participation in Horizon Europe, its implications for UK scientists and researchers, and the rocky road that led to this crucial decision.

Written by RedKnight Consultancy

After more than two and a half years of uncertainty and negotiations, the UK Government, and the European Commission (EC) have reached a landmark agreement to enable the UK's association with the Horizon Europe programme. This announcement brings a sigh of relief to UK and European Union scientists who have been in limbo since 2021, uncertain about their future in collaborative research endeavours.

A milestone agreement on UK participation in Horizon Europe

The joint statement released on the 7th September 2023 by the UK Government and the EC marks a turning point in UK-EU relations, particularly in the realm of scientific cooperation. EC President Ursula von der Leyen aptly described this agreement as proof of the EU and UK's status as key strategic partners and allies. This collaboration reaffirms their commitment to being leaders in global science and research.

The UK's association to Horizon Europe signifies a pivotal step in ensuring the UK research community's continued access to Europe's flagship research and innovation program. This association status allows UK entities to participate in Horizon Europe on equal terms with EU countries, with very limited exceptions, starting from the Work Programme 2024 onwards. This includes eligibility for funding at the same rates and under the same conditions as EU participants, the ability to lead project consortia, and counting towards the minimum number of countries required for transnational project applications. For calls under the Work Programmes of 2021, 2022, and 2023, UK applicants remain eligible for evaluation by the EU and, if successful, will receive funding through the UK government's Horizon Europe funding guarantee​​​​ which extends to cover all calls under the Work Programme 2023, irrespective of the call closing or grant signature date, thereby safeguarding funding for UK participants in these projects​​.

Horizon Europe covers a wide range of thematic areas, including health, culture, civil security, digital industries, space, climate, energy, mobility, food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture, and the environment. UK researchers and institutions can apply for funding across these diverse fields, ensuring continued collaboration and innovation with European partners.

However, there are specific areas of Horizon Europe that UK applicants cannot participate in, such as the European Innovation Council (EIC) Fund, which provides equity finance support to EIC Accelerator projects, and certain calls limited to EU member states or other specific countries. Despite these exceptions, the UK's association broadly encompasses the full Horizon Europe programme, offering significant opportunities for UK researchers and innovators to engage in cutting-edge research and collaboration on a global scale​​.

For detailed guidance on applying for Horizon Europe funding, including finding partners and collaborators, and accessing support services, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) provides comprehensive assistance to UK applicants, facilitating their successful participation in the programme​​.

The association with Horizon Europe opens up numerous opportunities for early-career researchers and innovators in the UK, providing them with access to international networks, training, and mobility schemes. Initiatives like the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) and the European Research Council (ERC) grants play a crucial role in attracting and retaining research talent, fostering a vibrant and dynamic research community within the UK. This not only helps in advancing the research frontier but also in building the next generation of scientific leaders.

Addressing past uncertainties

While UK academics have been able to participate in industrially focused Pillar 2 projects of the Horizon program, the uncertainty surrounding the UK's long-term involvement caused UK participation in the program to decrease significantly. This reduction raised concerns that UK scientists might be excluded from vital European academic networks that had been cultivated over decades.

UK-based winners of ERC grants faced a difficult choice between relocating to the EU to maintain their awards or settling for UK equivalent schemes. This decision was fraught with uncertainty and implications for both individuals and the broader scientific community.

The long and winding road to association

The journey to re-associate with Horizon Europe has been characterised by twists and turns, and it has been far from straightforward. Initially, the Horizon association was agreed upon in principle at the end of 2020, as part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement that outlined post-Brexit relations between the UK and the EU. All that was required to formalise this association was the signature of both parties.

However, 2021 saw relations sour over the Northern Ireland issue, as the UK Government threatened to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This protocol was designed to prevent customs checks on the island of Ireland and to ensure continued peace. The EC, in response to the unresolved Northern Ireland dispute, withheld its approval for the Horizon association.

The Horizon association became intertwined with broader political disputes, remaining elusive until February of the following year when the Windsor Framework addressed the Northern Ireland issue. Despite this progress, negotiations continued to stall, with the UK seeking assurances to prevent substantial financial losses from its late entry into the program.

Details of the agreement

Whilst the announcement back in September 2023 didn’t explicitly detail how negotiators resolved these financial concerns, it did mention a "temporary and automatic mechanism" designed to address any significant financial underperformance by the UK. If the UK contributes 16% more than its scientists receive in grants, this mechanism would activate. The UK is set to contribute "almost €2.6 billion" annually for its participation in Horizon Europe.

Additionally, the agreement confirms that the UK will remain part of the EU's Copernicus satellite system, despite initial concerns that the UK had already missed significant calls under the program. Copernicus plays a crucial role in understanding and addressing environmental and climate change-related challenges, making the UK's continued association valuable.

Euratom and ITER: The missing pieces

One notable absence in the UK's renewed association with European research initiatives is Euratom, the EU's nuclear research program. As a result, the UK will not participate in ITER, a multi-billion-euro collaborative project located in France aimed at building a prototype fusion reactor. The decision not to re-join Euratom was guided by the UK's assessment that its industry's long absence from Euratom and ITER programs could not be reversed.

Instead, the UK will pursue a domestic fusion energy strategy with international collaboration, including partnerships with European counterparts. This alternative program is supported by substantial funding, up to £650 million until 2027, to ensure the UK's research interests and taxpayer funding align with its priorities.

The UK's association with Horizon Europe marks a milestone in the country's scientific and innovation journey, reaffirming its commitment to excellence, collaboration, and global engagement. This partnership not only enriches the UK and EU’s research and innovation ecosystem but also strengthens their roles in addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing the world today. As the UK and EU embark on this renewed partnership, the focus will be on maximising the mutual benefits of collaboration, fostering a vibrant scientific community, and driving innovation that leads to economic growth and societal advancement on both sides of the Channel. The journey ahead is filled with opportunities to redefine the frontiers of knowledge and innovation, with Horizon Europe serving as a key catalyst for shared progress and prosperity.

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