With a budget of EUR 95-billion, Horizon Europe is the largest transnational research programme in the world. However, as we reported on here and here, there has been much uncertainty about whether and how the UK would be able to participate in Horizon Europe following Brexit. Here we provide an update on the UK’s participation in the programme.

The UK has historically been a large beneficiary of the framework research funding programmes created by the EU to support scientific research in Europe. Notably, under the most recent programme, Horizon 2020, UK based researchers were the second highest recipients of funding, having secured 12.1% of the available funds (more than EUR 7 billion) and also received the highest number of grants awarded to any country. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union cast into doubt the future of UK researchers to be able to continue to benefit from this important funding source. The UK scientific research community therefore breathed a collective sigh of relief on 24 December 2020 as it was announced that the UK and EU had finally agreed the landmark Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). The TCA set out the terms of the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU in a number of important areas, including the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe and brought to an end more than four years of uncertainty about the UK’s participation in the programme.

Scope of UK’s membership

Under the terms of the TCA the UK will become an associate member of Horizon Europe. It’s envisaged that this will enable UK researchers to participate in the programme in the same way as EU participants by competing for the same grants at the same rates and under the same conditions. UK based researchers will also be able to lead project consortia. Horizon Europe has a number of elements and the UK’s associate membership will importantly include participation in the European Research Council (ERC), the Marie Curie-Skłodowska Actions, the six ‘Global Challenges’ clusters and Missions, the partnerships and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology.

However, the UK’s membership is subject to a few exceptions. First, it has been agreed that UK entities will not be eligible to participate in the EIC Fund part of the EIC Accelerator aspect of Horizon Europe. The EIC Accelerator enables SMEs and start-ups to receive mixed funding in the form of grants, loans and/or equity funding. Exclusion of the UK from the EIC Fund means that UK based SMEs and start-ups will not be eligible for loans or equity (although they can still apply for grants).

Secondly, the UK’s participation in parts of the programme which cover space and quantum projects is still uncertain and is currently the subject of some controversy. A proposal in the European Commission’s current work programme for Horizon Europe suggests that the EU may exclude associated countries, including the UK, Switzerland and Israel, from quantum computing and space research projects. Under the Horizon Europe regulation, the EU is entitled to limit participation to selected entities “when there is a justified need to safeguard the Union’s strategic assets, interests, autonomy or security”. However, this exclusionary approach is facing strong opposition from universities across Europe and it has also been reported that there is growing backlash among EU member states to the proposal, with the German government coming out publicly against it. Discussions on this point are still ongoing.

Financial contributions

As reported previously, one of the key sticking points in the negotiations over the UK’s future membership of Horizon Europe concerned funding. In particular what would happen in the event that the UK’s financial contributions to the programme did not match the level of funding received by the UK with the UK arguing for a “two-way” correction mechanism. A correction mechanism was agreed under the TCA, although the mechanism is perhaps not as “two-way” as the UK had been pressing for.

It has been agreed that the UK will pay in a sum proportional to the ratio of UK GDP to the EU27 GDP. However, if for two consecutive years the UK receives more in grants than it has contributed, by an amount which exceeds 8% of the UK’s financial contribution, it must reimburse the difference to the EU. On the other hand, if the UK receives significantly less (which was the concern of the UK Government), the UK and EU should first to try to improve the level of UK participation. Then, if the UK has overpaid by more than 12%, it may bring the matter to the joint Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes for consideration and agree appropriate measures to balance the situation. If there is still a funding imbalance which exceeds 16%, the Specialised Committee can make adaptations to the UK’s participation and adjust future financial contributions. At this stage, the UK could also reconsider its participation in the programme.

In terms of the source of funding for the UK’s contribution, in April 2021 the UK Government announced that it would make an additional £250m available to fund the UK’s participation in the programme. This was welcome news to the UK’s scientific research community as it had previously been speculated that funding for the UK’s participation would come out of the core budget of the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (already the subject of funding cuts) which would have put further strain on the availability of funding for UK science and innovation.

Current status

As mentioned above, on 27 April 2021 the European Parliament officially adopted the legislation for Horizon Europe which had been provisionally put in place by the Commission from 1 January 2021.

The Commission has already launched calls for proposals for funding from the European Research Council and the European Innovation Council. However, work programmes for the rest of the programme, including documents which set out scope, budget and timescales of calls for proposals over the coming years, have been delayed. Originally due to be published in March, the current suggestion is that that these will now be available at the end of May. Although the reason for the delay is unclear, it has been reported that some stakeholders suspect the delay is linked to the debate as to whether associated membership for the UK, Switzerland and Israel will include the ability to participate in space and quantum projects.

While the uncertainty over participation in space and quantum projects does not prevent UK entities from applying for funding from the first calls for proposals, grant agreements cannot be signed until the terms of the UK’s association with Horizon Europe have been finalised and the UK’s association has entered into force. We will continue to monitor this issue as it threatens to delay the allocation of funding from the programme.

Conclusion

Although there still seem to be a few kinks to resolve around the scope of the UK’s associate membership in relation to space and quantum projects, agreement of the TCA and confirmation that the UK will be able to participate in Horizon Europe is a monumental step and excellent news for the UK scientific research community. The further news that the UK Government will make an additional £250m available to fund the UK’s participation in the programme is also welcomed, putting to bed fears of a funding shortfall. As the European Commission has recently launched the first calls for proposals for the European Research Council and the European Innovation Council, we hope UK researchers can repeat their previous successes in winning funding and that the UK’s participation in the programme continues to foster important scientific collaboration between the UK and other European institutions.