The UK’s scientific research community will breathe a collective sigh of relief at the news this week that we look very likely to join the EU Horizon network. Negotiators have indicated that Rishi Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will make a joint announcement at the NATO summit in mid-July, that the UK will rejoin in 2024.
This announcement will end uncertainty and unease in the sector which was facing the prospect of losing vital projects, specialists and jobs, during the limbo of the past three years. The potential investment and benefits to the economy which can follow successful research were in danger of drifting to Europe, the US and elsewhere, further diminishing the UK’s international standing in this area.
UK science world leaders
This is important, because although UK has many world-leading scientific institutions, we cannot go it alone. Major societal challenges – such as climate change, health, energy, and digital transformation – cross borders, and whilst individual countries face unique problems in these areas, there’s plenty that each of these countries can learn from each other by working as closely together as possible. Projects require international collaboration to respond effectively at the scale of the scientific challenges we face, bringing together specialists from diverse disciplines that no one single country possesses.
The Human Brain Project, for example, undertakes cutting-edge neuroscience research that will provide countless benefits in future medical treatments. It received over €1bn from Horizon, which enabled collaboration and additional investment from over 100 partner institutions – universities, research centres, and industrial partners – across Europe.
UK scientists have been calling for the UK to rejoin Horizon since our exit from the EU in January 2020, not least because the UK received €7bn in research funding in the seven years up to our exit, with approximately 2,000 UK businesses participating and €1.4bn being awarded to UK industry.
The implementation of the Windsor agreement, which resolved the reneging of the deal around Irish border issues, has in turn made our return to Horizon possible. It is also hoped that the UK may rejoin the Copernicus Earth observation programme, part of the EU Space programme.
Rejoining Horizon would, potentially, signal that pragmatism rather than ideology will drive a closer relationship between the UK and the EU, as the practical impacts of Brexit become increasingly apparent.