Opinion

Horizon Europe unites scientists – let’s keep it separate from Northern Ireland protocol debates

Horizon Europe is the largest international research funding programme in the world. But the UK’s participation hangs in the balance in the dispute over post-Brexit arrangements. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep science separate from complex political negotiations. 

Three scientists working in a lab at the University of Manchester.
A photograph of the author, Beth Thompson.

Beth Thompson

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Horizon Europe unites scientists – let’s keep it separate from Northern Ireland protocol debates
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Wherever you look, you find that the brightest new scientific ideas from developing treatments for cancer to better understanding mental health conditions such as anxiety – have all benefited from scientists coming together from different backgrounds. 

This is why everyone should care about Horizon Europe. It’s the largest international research and innovation funding programme in the world, with a €95.5 billion pot over seven years. It helps scientists tackle climate change and work towards helping people live longer, healthier lives. The scheme doesn’t just support European scientists, it allows them to collaborate on a global stage. It’s not just about EU members either – Israel, Norway and many others are part of it as associate members, while countries including Japan, Canada, New Zealand and South Korea are all in talks to join. 

The UK could lose its membership of Horizon Europe 

The UK has been part of Horizon Europe’s predecessor schemes for years, but its membership is now hanging in the balance. While it was agreed as part of the December 2020 Brexit agreement, it has not yet received the final seal of approval. The EU says it’s not willing to give UK membership final sign-off while the Northern Ireland protocol dispute is ongoing. 

This has meant there has been, so far, an 18-month delay in finalising the UK’s Horizon Europe associate membership. While ministers can replace the lost funding if the UK is not granted continued associate membership, UK academics and institutions can no longer lead projects and it is more difficult to collaborate with European counterparts. Some academics have been told they will not be able to keep their starting grants if they stay in the UK.  

Scientists cannot control the outcome of debates over the Northern Irish protocol. We are joining them in asking that the UK government and EU Commission treat Horizon Europe as something separate. Science should not be used as a bargaining chip, especially as it represents no leverage over the complex Northern Ireland protocol issues. The political issues at stake are important and do need to be resolved in a satisfactory way. But this can happen while the UK participates in Horizon Europe, so that science can continue to progress while negotiations take place.  

With each day of delay, international collaborations are being put on hold. And advances in science and innovation are being held back. As members of the European-wide Stick to Science campaign, which was set up in response to the delayed progress of the UK and Switzerland’s Horizon Europe membership, we have written this week to the President of the European Commission urging her to intervene in this crucial issue. 

Scientists are calling for an urgent resolution 

Researchers in the UK and in European countries have told us that they want to share their knowledge and draw on varied skillsets and backgrounds. They do not want to be limited by administrative or membership barriers. Horizon Europe offers an open structure for European countries, as well as non-EU countries such as Israel and Norway which have joined as 'associate members', to collaborate and get new projects off the ground quickly. Without it, cooperation is much harder. Without associate membership, UK scientists cannot have leadership roles in projects funded by the EU’s flagship research programme. 

Horizon Europe was founded with the aim of facilitating global responses to global challenges, giving us the best chance of developing innovative treatments for emerging threats.  

It is vital that the UK government and the EU commission look beyond Brexit negotiations and agree on an urgent resolution to allow scientists to continue working together. Blocking UK associate membership of Horizon Europe would harm both the UK and the EU.  

George Freeman, the UK science minister, has emphasised that the UK does not want to walk away from Horizon Europe. Britain has ringfenced £15 billion for the programme over the next 10 years. Mr. Freeman has said that if the UK continues to be blocked from Horizon Europe, he is ready to spend the same amount of money on a 'Plan B' package for researchers. But starting a new scheme from scratch, with all the complexities of negotiating international agreements, is a clear second-best option. It would never be possible to replicate the scale or prestige.

Producing the best science to save lives 

Horizon Europe is a ready-made international scheme which provides access to world-class projects. And it benefits the EU to have the UK as a member. The UK has some of the best universities in the world and its scientists have proven their worth in terms of leading and supporting EU projects and producing results over the past few decades. 

While politicians in the UK and EU may continue to find disagreements over what Brexit will look like, scientists are simply asking to continue working together in Horizon Europe. This is about finding a way to produce the best science to benefit human health, regardless of what may happen with shifting international allegiances.  

As I write this, scientists are researching vaccines for future pandemics, investigating urgent health threats from climate change, and studying cures for Alzheimer’s disease – all as part of an international community. Let’s do everything in our power to help them continue this work in the most effective way: collaboratively.

  • A photograph of the person, Beth Thompson.

    Beth Thompson

    Associate Director, Policy

    Wellcome

    Beth leads Wellcome's policy work and is a passionate advocate for better public policy for research and its use in action. She joined Wellcome’s Policy team in 2009.

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