UK forced to extend Horizon Europe safety net by another three months

08 Jun 2023 | News

Talks are dragging on, and the government evidently is not optimistic about agreeing association this side of the summer recess

UK science minister George Freeman. Photo: UK Parliament

The UK government has extended its scheme supporting Horizon Europe applicants by three more months until the end of September, suggesting that an agreement between Brussels and London over association to the €95.5 billion research programme programme is not imminent.

The UK and the EU continue to be locked in negotiations over how much the UK pays into Horizon Europe’s during its final three-and-a-half years.

The scheme was launched in November 2021 to fund UK-based scientists who are successful in Horizon Europe calls and to date the £1.05 billion has been awarded in 2,000 grants.

There was hope of progress in February when the EU and UK agreed a deal to resolve the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, which at that point was the main reason Brussels was blocking the UK’s association to Horizon Europe.

But talks between the two sides have since been bogged down in the nitty gritty of exactly how much the UK should pay towards Horizon Europe’s budget, with the UK government saying it should “reflect the lasting impact of two years of EU delays to the UK’s association.”

Today’s announcement of the extension is not necessarily negative according to Martin Smith, head of the policy lab at the UK medical research charity Wellcome Trust.

“If anything I’d say it was good that the previous end point for the guarantee isn’t being used to create an arbitrary deadline,” he told Science|Business.

However, the longer talks drag on, the less UK-based researchers will benefit from association.

Up to speed

The European Commission has said the UK does not have to pay for 2021 and 2022, but the UK government says it will take time for the researchers to get back up to speed and join research consortia, putting them at a disadvantage in the years the programme still has to run.

According to the original UK-EU research deal agreed in December 2020, the UK has to pay into Horizon Europe a sum in proportion to its GDP. But, if for two consecutive years, the UK takes out more than it puts into the programme by an amount that exceeds 8% of its contribution, it will have to reimburse the EU to cover the difference.

In turn, the UK can terminate its participation in Horizon Europe if its financial contribution increases by 15% or if UK researchers are excluded from more than 10% of the programme.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations between London and Brussels, if financial models predict the UK would get less money out than it puts in, it will be more difficult to convince the government that Horizon Europe association is the way to go.

The UK‘s science minister George Freeman said in a recent interview that it would be “pretty extraordinary” if a deal with the EU is not reached. “We just need a fair settlement – a fair reassociation price,” he told the UK parliament’s internal newsletter, The House.

However, Freeman has been laying the ground for an alternative UK programme, Pioneer. First details were announced in April, but there was no word on when the government would decide to call time on Horizon Europe association talks and launch the £14.6 billion UK go-it-alone programme.

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