Why rejoining Horizon Europe is too little and too late

Horizon Europe Image credit: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Albert Einstein single-handedly developed the theory of relativity. Galileo revolutionised our understanding of the universe by inventing the telescope on his own. And Marie Curie, virtually alone, pioneered the discovery and use of X-rays. These individuals did incredible things for science – a while ago.

Science is a different type of enterprise today. It’s dependent, to its core, on international collaboration. One scientist, research department, or even country can’t work out how to use nuclear fusion as a source of low-carbon electricity, solve quantum field theory, or develop a cure for cancer without unmarred access to the international scientific ecosystem.

Many people from across the scientific, business, and political spectrums have thrown their hats in the air to celebrate our rejoining of Horizon Europe as if it’s a problem solved. But it’s too late and not enough.

The UK’s three-year hiatus from the world’s largest and most successful research collaboration will have a devastating impact on our scientific capabilities for years to come.

Let’s look at the figures. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK paid nearly £4.3bn into EU research projects and received almost £7bn back in research grants – that was a seal of approval for the UK’s world-renowned science and technology capabilities. Moreover, data from the European Commission in 2019 show that £828.8m was awarded to UK researchers, compared with a paltry £19m this year as of August.

Since we left the programme, funding for UK science has plummeted, having a deep, immediate effect on our research capabilities. But we’ve rejoined now, so all is back to the way it was, right?

Far from it. The UK government has shredded our reputation as an international science power. It showed the world that we value the vital importance of scientific innovation, but not as much as backroom haggling and pseudo-independence.

Our pretence that we could replace Horizon Europe with our own domestic programme, Pioneer, is the clearest example of the government’s lack of understanding of the necessity of international collaboration – something our partners in Europe and further afield will take note of.

Imagine you’re a researcher in Germany leading a pioneering project to develop new ocean carbon capture chemistries. You’re looking for an international partner to collaborate with and have been approached by fantastic researchers from the UK and the Netherlands. After the last three years, would you join teams with the UK researchers?

You might do. But you might be planning an all-important follow-up project and be wondering whether the UK partner will still be on board if the UK decides not to renew its membership after 2027 (Horizon’s current funding programme runs until 2027).

Worse still, the UK researchers might have failed to receive funding for their research into the subject for the last three years and are far behind their counterparts in the Netherlands, removing them from consideration entirely.

But the damage goes beyond our reputation and an acute funding shortfall. Research is a timely process, which can take years to yield breakthroughs and see benefits: the biggest breakthroughs of the next five to ten years are in development across the world now.

Horizon Europe: Not business as usual

Perhaps the most visible damage from our government’s political brinksmanship over rejoining Horizon Europe will be that the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the next five to 10 years – from AI to climate change to healthcare – are now less likely to be led by, or involve, researchers from the UK.

So, clearly, our exit from Horizon Europe had a deep and immediate impact. And the damage caused by the funding shortfall will take years to recover from. But now we’ve regained access to the £85bn scheme, we’re on the road to recovery, and we’ll be back to normal at some point down the track, right?

Not quite. We exited Horizon Europe as a full member. We’ve rejoined as an associate member. The EU can now pull funding from UK research projects if they’re deemed to undermine the EU’s strategic objectives, such as security, competitiveness, or protection of sensitive information – needless to say, these are vital areas of research.

As an associate member, we’re also shut out of the European Innovation Council – which was set up to support the commercialisation of high-risk and high-impact technologies. It aids startups, SMEs, and researchers through a £10bn fund.

As an entrepreneur who believes that innovation in technology is key to tackling the most difficult challenges domestically and globally, and to driving up productivity, economic growth, and living standards in the UK, this feels like we’re being kicked while we’re down. I’m all ears for a government programme aimed at making up for this – perhaps we could call it Pioneer?

Talent exodus

Years of wavering and uncertainty have also had a devastating impact on the availability of talented researchers to UK research departments. Many such scientists will have inevitably decided to explore opportunities abroad, where access to grants has been more forthcoming. And many foreign researchers, who may have come to the UK, will have opted to go elsewhere.

In the past, for European researchers, the process of coming to work in the UK involved getting on a plane, landing in the UK, and starting work. Now, expensive visas have to be procured through a baroque and slow system, and they have to pay an additional £624 each year for healthcare despite (like UK residents) paying tax and national insurance. Making it harder for the brightest and the best to come to the UK and contribute hugely to our economic growth and prosperity seems to be another Brexit “benefit” that involves shooting ourselves in the foot.

The hit to research talent in the UK was highlighted starkly in recent polling of cancer specialists by Cancer Research UK: 76% of respondents said leaving Horizon Europe has caused difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. I do expect this will improve in coming years, but I think it’s unlikely that our ability to attract and retain talented researchers – the cogs in our scientific machine – will return to its previous high.

But, enough of the doom and gloom. It’s time we set about repairing the damage done to our scientific innovation. And focused on minimising the knock-on impact of this reckless ideological withdrawal from international collaboration in vital scientific research. This process must begin with a fully-fledged, judge-led, independent inquiry.

Ewan Kirk is an entrepreneur in residence at Cambridge University, chair of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences and founded Cantab Capital Partners.