UK researchers breathed a cautious sigh of relief yesterday after the government reached a deal with the European Union to resolve post-Brexit disputes over issues including trade across the Northern Ireland border. The IS political agreementcalled the Windsor Framework, which has nothing to do with science, but effectively bypasses a two-year diplomatic barrier that separate arrangements with Horizon Europe, the European Union’s massive research funding programme, have led to.
“Yes, this Windsor Framework is good news for scientists and researchers, in the European Union and the United Kingdom,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a joint meeting press conference yesterday with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Rishi Sunak. “The time (this agreement) has been put in place,” she said, “I am ready to start” the negotiations regarding the United Kingdom’s participation in Horizon Europe, which is to be launched at around €95 billion to scientists between 2021 and 2027. But the road Final arrangements for science funding will likely be long, observers warn.
Horizon Europe funds individual researchers (through grants from the European Research Council, for example) as well as cross-border collaborative projects. Researchers from the UK have been among the most successful in winning these grants. But after the country left the European Union in 2020, it had to make a specific arrangement for researchers from the UK to compete for the funds.
In December 2020, that deal was reached as part of a wider trade agreement. The parties agreed that the United Kingdom would pay a fee to be “related” to Horizon Europe, as other non-EU countries including Israel, Norway, and Turkey. Since then, however, the dispute over Northern Ireland—which is part of the United Kingdom but shares a border with EU member Ireland—has delayed the settlement of Horizon Europe. That left many researchers from the UK in uncertainty or frustration with stopgap solutions.
Last week, some of those frustrations subsequently rose revealed the UK Campaign for Science and Engineering the government transferred back to the exchequer around £1.6 billion which had been earmarked for association with Horizon Europe and Euratom, a pan-European nuclear power programme. Researchers feared that the “surrender” of the funds meant that the money would no longer go to research.
Now, the Windsor agreement offers cautious hope. He suggests that there is “good will” on both sides “after years of uncertainty,” says Martin Smith, head of the policy lab at the Wellcome Trust, a private UK research funder.
Before talks on re-joining Horizon Europe can begin, however, the UK Parliament will need to approve the Windsor Framework. Other obstacles will follow. “We believe that, given the delays that have already occurred, it is likely that there will be significant further negotiation on the practicalities required before an association can be confirmed,” said Jim McDonald, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, in a statement to the Council. UK Science Media Center (SMC). Firstly, the UK would be joining Horizon Europe half way through, as the program started in 2021, so it is likely that the association fee will need to be renegotiated.
Even if an agreement is reached, researchers say it will be difficult to undo some of the damage. “The UK’s withdrawal from these collaborative schemes has damaged our position and some of that damage will be irreversible,” John Hardy, chair of molecular biology of neurological disease at University College London, told SMC. “Grants will be written without us and we will now have to try to re-enter these networks, which we once led, as candidates.”
“We should not be naive about this: it will take many years to fully rebuild the links that have been severed,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Association of European Research Intensive Universities, in an email to ScienceInside. But he hopes UK scientists will “re-engage fully” with the EU programme.