UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces an end-of-September deadline on whether to rejoin the €95bn Horizon Europe programme or extend the domestic arrangement that has seen his government spend more than £1 billion on grants for UK researchers.
The government guarantee scheme was intended to support those research programmes that had previously relied on money they were receiving from Horizon before the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The scheme is due to expire at the end of September.
The UK was expected to rejoin the programme, which ends in 2027, as an associate member under the terms of the Brexit deal but this was blocked for two years in a prolonged dispute between Brussels and London over the Northern Ireland protocol that saw the European Commission shelve talks on Horizon altogether. The protocol referred to the post-Brexit relationship between the UK, EU and Northern Ireland.
Following the conclusion of the Windsor Framework, which resolved the issue, EC President Ursula von der Leyen said the UK’s access to Horizon could be fast-tracked but negotiations then became bogged down over how much the UK Treasury will contribute to the funding programme budget.
Sunak’s previously stated position was that he would only agree to rejoin Horizon if it could be shown to provide value for money for UK taxpayers and be in the best interests of the country’s science and research sectors.
He earlier said of the negotiations: “Those conversations are ongoing and it is important that we give those conversations the time to conclude. There’s no point in doing something that is not in the interests of British taxpayers or British researchers and scientists.”
The EU had previously agreed that the UK could attain associate status of Horizon on discounted terms following the interruption to its involvement in the programme following Brexit. The funding was scheduled to finish in 2027, having begun in 2021.
The prime minister is also believed to be committed to the UK’s fallback option to Horizon -the so-called “Pioneer” scheme – should negotiations with the EU collapse.
The homegrown research and development scheme aimed at making the UK “a science and tech superpower” would be allocated £14.6 billion, the same amount of funding as the government would have paid to Horizon from 2021 to 2027, according to a Downing Street proposal published in April. Establishing Pioneer, however, would take months.
As Sunak delays a decision, pressure is mounting from the scientific community with one leading cancer research charity earlier in August releasing its results from a survey of experts that found overwhelming support for the UK to re-connect with Horizon. Of the 84 specialists questioned, 75 per cent favoured association with Horizon while only 11 per cent supported the UK’s Pioneer programme.