Three Reasons Why The UK Needs To Rejoin Horizon: Mike Galsworthy

Published on November 10, 2022

Horizon Europe is the EU’s research and innovation programme. 

Worth EUR 95.5 billion over 7 years, it is the third biggest part of the EU budget, after agriculture and regional funding.  

The programme has many different components, ranging from funding under the European Research Council (ERC) for cutting edge projects, to European Innovation Council (EIC) support for ‘breakthrough innovation’ which is transforming advanced research into successful products. 

So, why do we need to rejoin Horizon? Here are three reasons why. 

1. Collaboration

Science is inherently collaborative. Success depends on identifying excellence from as wide a pool as possible and then bringing the best minds and the best facilities together, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This works even better when you can do it effortlessly across borders.  

With Horizon Europe and its precursors, the beauty was that in order to collaborate internationally, whether between two countries or twenty, you only needed one application. This is because all EU Member States as well as Associated Countries had contributed to the same pot and system, making it easier to put together whatever collaborative combinations you like from this vast ecosystem of resources and skills. This is powerful. 

The unity of European science in the Horizon programme has allowed Europe-based researchers from around the world to conduct huge projects which lead their fields globally. It has made Europe not just cohesive on science, but an absolute science superpower. 

Before Brexit, between 2014 and 2016, UK organisations took part in more Horizon projects than organisations from any other Member State and we were the leading voice in setting the priorities and steering the Horizon programme politically, having been the engine behind setting up the hugely successful European Research Council grants. 

Horizon has helped the EU to compete with the US and China in science, something no single European country could ever do alone, which is why it is so important that we have a seat at the table.

Since Brexit the UK has lost its role in deciding how Horizon is conceived and implemented. Uncertainty over the future, with many threats of an imminent no-deal Brexit between 2016 and 2020, meant our participation in Horizon projects declined sharply – collaborations started to sputter and falter with Brits and their partners less willing to risk including UK institutions on projects.

By making cross-border scientific collaboration more uncertain and difficult, the UK is falling behind.

Rejoining Horizon Europe is by far the biggest factor for improving collaboration and for getting Britain back to being a full team player and team leader.  

2. Funding

The UK was once the leading scientific power in the EU and the leading beneficiary of the EU’s Horizon funding programme.  

In fact, as UK national science funds were stagnating in the austerity years, the EU was actually ramping up science funding – and UK institutions were direct beneficiaries of that funding growth. 

But as soon as the UK decided to leave the EU, uncertainty over the future meant its participation in Horizon projects declined sharply. As per our Scientists for EU analysis shown in the graph above, by December 2020, UK organisations had already lost out on £1.5 billion relative to Germany. 

In fact, we’d fallen to fifth place on the programme, just above the Netherlands (population 17.5 million). And that was all while we were still fully paying into the Horizon 2020 science programme!

The situation now is that we’ve signed up to Horizon Europe and budgeted for it, but have not yet properly entered the programme, a programme which started in 2021, due to ongoing disagreements over the Northern Ireland protocol. So, as a result, we’ve been left hanging and wasting more time, more valuable funding and more potential collaborative links.

And if you’re thinking “well, it’s our money, let’s just take it back and fund science ourselves, because we’d get more value from that”, then you’d be wrong. It is specifically the funding from pan-European high-prestige grants and multinational collaborations that we so often led that provided the extra value beyond national funding.

So, while the government has committed to doubling UK research funding to 2.4% of GDP by 2025, it has become clear that no domestic funding arrangements can adequately replace the unique added value lost when leaving Horizon Europe.

That is why the UK must rejoin Horizon. 

For UK organisations, if full association with Horizon is eventually achieved, in some ways the situation will be as it was pre-Brexit. Yes, we’ll be behind on many fronts and not in pole position, but our excellent researchers and institutions are likely to be in demand as partners and we can recover ground fast. 

3. Jobs

In June, it was reported that the European Research Council withdrew the grants of 115 researchers based in the UK, with a further 19 relocated outside of the UK, due to the ongoing failure of the UK to fully associate on Horizon Europe, due in turn to tensions over the NI Protocol.

Each of these grants typically means 1-2 million euros in funding, meaning hundreds of jobs.  

Here is an account of one of them - who lost a EUR 2.5M grant.

Incidentally, we also lost some 900 jobs when the European Medicines Agency (EMA) left London for Amsterdam – all because of Brexit.

Within a matter of weeks after the Brexit vote, our early survey of the science community showed people already turning down science jobs in the UK over Brexit. 

Across our universities and innovative businesses, the disruptions of Brexit have had a chilling effect on investment and ability to attract talent. And that impacts on jobs now and jobs in the future.

There is a “brain drain” happening right now – and so working with the EU to ensure the UK can return to Horizon Europe is imperative for boosting jobs, investment, preventing further brain drain and laying the foundations to rebuild Britain’s high-skill economy for the future.

The UK Needs to Rejoin Horizon. 

In short, since leaving the EU and consequently, through terrible diplomacy, Horizon has meant that opportunities to lead and coordinate scientific projects have become fewer, that EU funding for scientific research has declined and that the UK no longer has the expert involvement required for setting the policies for Horizon.

The only viable option for improving scientific collaboration, funding and opportunities here in the UK is to rejoin Horizon. Brexit will still have caused enormous damage to the sectors involved, both in general and specifically as regards participation in Horizon, but rejoining can help us once again collaborate successfully with our European partners.

Of course, rejoining Horizon does not come without difficulties. As long as issues over the Northern Ireland Protocol remains unresolved, the UK will continue to be excluded from the £84 billion Horizon Europe funding programme. 

The EU’s lack of trust in the UK’s reliability on contractual agreements is understandable, but we desperately hope that negotiators can find a way forward. It is vastly under-appreciated just how critical this issue is to UK science - and how much of a key driver of our future economy this is.

My advice to the government is to stop its anger at Brussels, honour its own commitments and – as a top priority - get the UK back into the world-class European science team we once led because, right now, scientists and researchers are suffering.

Dr Mike Galsworthy, founder of Scientists for EU and ambassador for European Movement UK 

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