Funding for UK research and innovation post-Brexit: Hope on the Horizon?


An update on the UK’s participation in Horizon 2020 and its successor Horizon Europe

Brexit raises fundamental questions as to how scientific research in the UK will be funded following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and whether the UK will have access to funding provided through future EU framework programmes.

Status of Horizon 2020

Since our previous article, the UK and EU have agreed and published a Joint Report which outlines the agreement in principle made between the UK and EU during the first round of Brexit negotiations. The Joint Report, published on 8 December 2017, confirmed that following withdrawal from the EU, the UK will continue to participate in Horizon 2020 until its closure. In particular it envisages that existing projects will continue to receive an uninterrupted flow of EU funding for the lifetime of the project and that UK participants will be eligible to bid for Horizon 2020 funding for the duration of the programme (including after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU). The UK Government is therefore encouraging the UK research and innovation community to continue applying for Horizon 2020 funding and participating in Horizon 2020 projects.

As a next step, the UK and the European Commission are now working on translating the Joint Report into a legally binding withdrawal agreement (which will be subject to outstanding issues to be agreed as part of the second phase of Brexit negotiations currently underway). The withdrawal agreement is due to be agreed in October 2018.

The agreement reached in the joint report should give UK research organisations and other beneficiaries of Horizon 2020 funding some comfort regarding availability and security of funding for research and innovation in the face of Brexit. To add to this, the UK Government has confirmed that the Treasury will continue to underwrite Horizon 2020 funding awarded prior to Brexit, in the event that commitments made in the Joint Report are not met.

Horizon Europe: beyond 2020

On 7 June 2018 the European Commission set out plans for Horizon Europe, the latest iteration of the European Commission’s ‘Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development’ and the successor to the current programme, Horizon 2020. Horizon Europe will run from 2021 to 2027, has a proposed budget of EUR 100 billion (of which EUR 2.4 billion is earmarked for the Euratom Research and Training Programme) and is being described by the European Commission as “the most ambitious research and innovation funding programme ever”. The proposed EUR 100 billion budget is almost a 30% increase on the EUR 77 billion budget for Horizon 2020.

According to the announcement, Horizon Europe will introduce several new features including the introduction of a European Innovation Council (EIC); a ‘one-stop shop’ to bring the most promising high potential and breakthrough technologies from lab to market application, and help the most innovative start-ups and companies scale up their ideas. The Commission also announced new EU-wide research and innovation missions which will focus on societal challenges and industrial competitiveness (such as the fight against cancer, clean transport or plastic-free oceans).

Seemingly recognising the importance of science, research and innovation to the UK, the UK Government has stated for some time that it wants the UK to be able to participate in Horizon Europe. In May this year, the Prime Minister said in her speech on science and modern industrial strategy that the UK would like “the option to fully associate” with Horizon Europe and that, in return for an appropriate financial contribution, the UK “would look to maintain a suitable level of influence”. However until now there has been relatively little information as to the basis on which the UK would be able to participate following its withdrawal from the EU. The plans published by the Commission last month (which include a draft regulation) go some way to addressing this question.

The proposed EUR 100 Billion budget for the programme currently assumes no contributions or involvement from the UK. However, European Commission Science Commissioner Carlos Moedas, presenting the budget at a press conference in Brussels acknowledged that the door had been left open for the UK to participate in Horizon Europe as a “third country”. It is notable that the plans unveiled by the Commission also have the potential to significantly broaden international access to the programme, allowing other non-EU “third countries” who meet certain criteria (such as having a good capacity in science technology and innovation, and a commitment to a rules-based open market economy) to participate.

While it is welcome news that the UK is not automatically excluded from Horizon Europe, the author notes that the proposals may not go as far as the UK Government had hoped. In order to access the programme, the UK would need to enter into an agreement setting out the terms of participation. The proposed regulation requires that this agreement must ensure “a fair balance as regards the contributions and benefits” of the UK’s participation and it also makes clear that the UK would not have a “decisional power” on the programme. This means it may not be possible for the UK to achieve the degree of influence over the programme that the Government is hoping for. The Government’s stated wish to “fully associate” with Horizon Europe may also not be achievable; the proposed regulation makes clear that the scope of association of each third country will take into account the EU’s objective of driving economic growth in the EU and on that basis enables the EU to restrict access for third countries to parts of the Programme.

The proposals and budget for the programme will now begin the process of being agreed between the Commission, the European Parliament and Council and the Member States. As with all things Brexit, the eventual outcome for the UK will also depend on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU. We expect to have more information in October when the draft withdrawal agreement is due to be agreed. For now, the proposals announced by the Commission seem like a step in the right direction but the UK research community certainly should not take the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe as a given.