Science world welcomes UK back to Horizon as government celebrates ‘bespoke deal’

07 Sep 2023 | News

As most breathe a sigh of relief, a leading MEP questions concession it is claimed could allow the UK to win grants over and above its contribution. The UK is not rejoining the Erasmus study abroad scheme or lifting post-Brexit visa requirements

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on a visit to the International Manufacturing Centre at the University of Warwick after the government announced it is to rejoin Horizon Europe. Photo: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Researchers are celebrating the UK re-joining Horizon Europe after years of political stalemate, but a leading MEP is disappointed with the UK government’s glee over a ‘bespoke deal.’

As the scientists rejoiced at the news, most called it a win for international science cooperation.

For some, UK science came first. “This is a shrewd agreement which allows UK science to win grants even beyond our contribution,” said Greg Clark, chair of the House of Lords’ Science, Innovation and Technology Committee.

The European Parliament’s leading voice on research and Horizon Europe co-rapporteur Christian Ehler, didn’t like the comments. He welcomed the deal, which he admits took too long, but called out Clark on his take.  

“Looking at the statement of Rt Hon Greg Clark, it is very clear that this was never about science and research for the British government, as it was for us - it was always about pretending Brexit is a great success,” Ehler told Science|Business.

The renegotiated terms mean that the UK has a firm guarantee it won’t have to pay in more than 16% more than it gets out in grants. London had been concerned that assurances about overpayment had been too vague, and haggling over that part of the deal has held up agreement since February.

The Commission agreed to this in light of the fact that the UK has not been fully part of Horizon Europe for the past two years. This is “a temporary and automatic mechanism to address any risk of critical underperformance by the UK,” the Commission said.

The UK government framed the agreement as a ‘bespoke deal’ that increases “the benefits to UK scientists, value for money for the UK taxpayer, and [mitigates] the impact that the EU’s delays to our association will have on participation rates of researchers.”

Ehler is not jumping to conclusions yet before the full details are out but says the Parliament will take a close look at any concessions made to the UK.

While the European Parliament doesn’t have a decisive say on the agreement, the previous EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel promised MEPs in a 2022 letter that they would be involved in association talks “at all stages of the negotiations.”

Elsewhere, there’s been little criticism as voices from around the science world rush to welcome the long-awaited deal.

Martin Smith, head of Policy Lab at the UK medical research charity Wellcome Trust, celebrated the creativity and political will that delivered the deal, noting that the details won’t matter as much as giving researchers the licence to cooperate.

“Wonks like me will pore over the details in the coming days to see exactly how the deal was done,” he said. “But realistically those details are incidental compared to the massive boost to science collaboration in the UK and Europe - and beyond - that an agreement brings.”

Politics over science

Most observers have noted the hold up over UK association has been down to Brussels and London playing politics, rather than any real obstacle in scientific cooperation. 

For Ehler, this was the correct course of action for the EU. “This took too long, but I am still convinced it was the right thing to do for the Union to hold the line,” he said.

But others, especially on the academic and scientific side, have been impatient for science to take precedence over politics. 

“The discussions around concessions [in the deal] are largely political to facilitate for the political level to sell messages to their constituency,” said Mattias Björnmalm, secretary general of the university association CESAER. “From the researcher perspective, the vital part is that barriers are removed and that researchers can again fully engage with Horizon Europe.”

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, agreed. “We always called upon both sides to be realistic. We don’t want an endless debate about money. The most important thing is to get people cooperating again. I’ve always said to people in London and Brussels, don’t be difficult, be flexible, don’t make a fuss about [percentages.]”

“It was a symbolic fight,” said Thomas Jørgensen, director of policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association, of the haggling over financial terms.

But politics is still inevitably involved. The UK decided against rejoining the EU’s nuclear power programme Euratom, choosing instead to pursue its own domestic strategy, to which it committed £650 million.

Nick Walkden, UK director of the Fusion Industry Association said the lobby group supported the decision to go it alone, but said, “Collaboration is key in fusion, and we would like to see the government maintain the UK’s relationship with European programmes by maintaining the model that it has instituted since January 2021, as well as pursuing a new bilateral relationship with ITER.”

The Euratom decision is a disappointment for some who view full association to the EU’s framework programme as vital. 

“You are in it for the full or you are out, was always my policy,” said Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology. “It is certainly a pity that the UK will not become associated to Euratom given their huge knowledge and expertise on both nuclear fission and fusion. That being said, it’s better to have the UK in with partial association than having them out.”

Staying out of Erasmus

Associated countries are eligible to be part of the Erasmus study abroad scheme, however, the UK decided in 2020 that it did not want to participate and is sticking to this position. The government has put an alternative national scheme in place, but it does not have the same firepower. As the Commission noted in background information on the UK association deal, during the period 2014-2020, over 7,300 UK organisations were involved in Erasmus and there were more than 197,000 UK participants, of whom more than 100,000 were UK students who went abroad.

Now all eyes are on Switzerland, whose bid to join Horizon is also held back by a deadlock over wider political issues. 

Germany’s state secretary for research, Sabine Döring, called the deal “fantastic news” for science in the EU and UK. “And now Switzerland, please,” she said. 

Just van der Hoek, policy adviser at the Netherlands house for Education and Research, hopes the UK deal helps pave the way for Switzerland, given it is “an equally important partner for the EU.”

Return to the status quo ante?

Politics aside, if and how quickly scientific collaboration between the EU and UK will get back to pre-Brexit levels remains to be seen. Some are more sceptical than others. 

One obstacle that may have to be addressed is the lack of provisions in the deal for visa-free movement for researchers. 

Alain Mermet, chief of the Brussels bureau of France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), believes visa requirements can pose hurdles to cooperation, especially when it comes to student mobility. “Visa exemptions for EU-UK research cooperation would be ideal,” he says.

Some are less worried. Deketelaere is confident any visa issues and other practical problems will be resolved. “People have been anticipating this deal and are already looking into these problems. I’m sure people in the Commission and the UK are clever enough to come up with solutions,” he said.

Practical details are yet to be clarified, but universities on both sides of the Channel are ready to jump at the opportunity to collaborate under Horizon Europe after three years of uncertainty. 

“Universities have plans in place to get researchers to apply and our partner universities and businesses across the EU – and in other associated countries – are eager to work with our institutions,” Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, an association of the UK’s leading research universities. 

Others don’t anticipate that everything will be back to normal tomorrow. “Perhaps near the end of Horizon Europe, mutual relationships will be in full swing again,” said van der Hoek. 

While the news of the UK’s association has been widely welcomed on both sides, some are still regretful about the years spent in limbo. 

John Hardy, group leader at the UK Dementia Research Institute at University College London, lamented “irreversible damage” caused by the three years of uncertainty. “It is unfortunate that government believes decisions are completely reversible,” he said. 

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