Although the UK has technically already left the EU, the transition period has suspended the thorny issue of what the UK-EU relationship will look like long term. As we reported previously, this means there is still no clarity about whether the UK’s science sector will be able to access EU Framework Programmes that fund research and innovation.
Adding to this uncertainty is the fact that the current EU Framework Programme for scientific research, Horizon 2020, will come to an end this year and its replacement, Horizon Europe, will launch in 2021. This coincides with the end of the transition period, during which, under the Withdrawal Agreement, the scientific community was able to continue to “participate in, bid for and lead projects in Horizon 2020”, according to the UK government.
But UK access to the EU’s new flagship programme for research grants, Horizon Europe, is still being negotiated. The programme has a budget of €80.9 billion for 2021 to 2027 and on 29 September 2020, the European Parliament and Council approved the regulation establishing Horizon Europe. The regulation provides third countries the opportunity to associate with the programme provided that there is an agreement governing participation that “ensures a fair balance as regards the contributions and benefits of the third country participating” and also the calculation of financial contributions.
The UK government and EU reportedly both want UK association with the programme, but talks have stalled over the EU’s proposed financial calculation for the UK. During a public evidence session held by the House of Lords EU Services Sub-Committee on 22 October 2020, it was reported by Vivienne Stern, Director, Universities UK International that the EU is proposing that the UK contribute around £15.2 billion to Horizon Europe in a “one-way” deal. If the UK was to receive more in funding than £15.2 billion, the UK government would have to repay the difference to the EU, but if the UK were to receive less it would not be entitled to recoup the money.
Stern said that the UK would need to win 16% of funding from the programme to break-even but under the current programme the UK wins only 12.7% of funding, which would leave a £3 billion deficit. She said that “even we think that doesn’t look fair, and we’ve been saying so to our European counterparts”. Stern added that if the EU proposed a two-way correction mechanism, this would prevent “an argument about money”.
In the event that negotiations fail and the UK does not associate with the programme, Stern said the UK government intends to fund UK researchers to participate in Horizon Europe collaboration projects but that it has not yet set out what shape this funding would take. Under the UK Research and Development Roadmap the UK government is also planning to increase its investment in the sciences after Brexit.
Catherine Guinard, Policy and Advocacy Manager, Wellcome Trust, said that EU funding was important to the UK science sector because “it’s not just about the money involved but all the intangible benefits that go alongside, research is all about collaboration and the EU is the UK’s most important research partner at the moment”. She added that the EU funding scheme allows the UK access it would not otherwise have to research networks, in particular for jointly run clinical trials.
As the end of the transition period nears, once again the UK scientific community must wait for the outcome of talks.