The UK will rejoin the European Union’s flagship Horizon science programme after two years of absence post-Brexit, the government has confirmed.
Number 10 said the move would happen “through a bespoke new agreement with the EU”.
A spokesperson added Prime Minister Rishi Sunak secured “improved financial terms of association that are right for the UK and protect the taxpayer”.
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Mr Sunak said: “We have worked with our EU partners to make sure that this is right deal for the UK, unlocking unparalleled research opportunities, and also the right deal for British taxpayers.”
Scientists called the announcement “tremendous news”.
Horizon is a collaboration involving Europe’s leading research institutes and technology companies which sees EU member states contribute funds that are then allocated to individuals or organisations on merit.
The UK was negotiating a deal to remain in the €95.5bn programme, but talks stalled over Brexit-related disagreements such as Northern Ireland.
In the two years since the UK was removed, Downing Street has stepped in to match EU grant money lost.
However, scientists warned that UK researchers have been missing out on collaboration with colleagues in Europe.
Professor Paul Stewart, from the Academy of Medical Sciences said the return “marks a pivotal moment for UK science”.
“After a hiatus, the scientific community is celebrating the tremendous news that we are once more part of the EU’s flagship funding programme,” he said.
“Health research is an international endeavour, it relies on supporting the best ideas, but also on creating cross-border networks which is good news for the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.
“Association sends a very strong message that the UK is open for business and remains a prime destination to work on health research and innovation to improve lives.”
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The government said UK researchers can apply for grants and bid to take part in projects under the Horizon programme from today.
As well as Horizon the UK will join the EU’s space programme, Copernicus, but it will not take part in the bloc’s nuclear technology scheme, Euratom.
Deal ‘not mission creep back into EU’
It had been hoped that a British return to Horizon would follow in the wake of the Windsor Framework deal, agreed in February and designed to address concerns over post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Whitehall sources said in July a draft deal was with the prime minister – but Downing Street said a UK-based alternative known as Pioneer also remained an option because Mr Sunak was concerned about “value for money”.
According to the EU’s estimate, Britain will contribute around £2.2 billion (almost 2.6 billion euros) per year to participate in both Horizon and the Copernicus.
Michelle Donelan, the secretary of state for science, denied the move was “mission creep back into the EU”.
She told Sky News: “This is fantastic news, not just for British scientists and researchers but also the British taxpayer.
“What we’re announcing today is a great deal, a deal that many said we won’t be able to get.”
Under the terms of the deal, the UK will not need to pay into the scheme for the two years it was absent, with costs under the programme beginning again in January 2024.
The government also pointed to the inclusion of a so-called “clawback” mechanism, which will mean that the UK will be compensated if British scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme.
Ms Donelan said the deal also includes an overperformance indicator, which means the UK won’t be penalised for overperforming “so we can really back our British scientists to achieve”.
Deal ‘too late’ for many researchers
Labour called the deal a “relief” but said it comes “too late” for many researchers.
Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “I think there is a sense that we have lost two years, that this should have happened two years ago and that is a big loss.”
He said the decision not to join Euratom is a “gap” Labour will look at.
However, Mr Sunak told science reporters during a visit to Warwick University that the fusion industry said “loud and clear” it did not want to associate with the programme and they would rather have a “bespoke UK scheme”.