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The future of European scientific research

On January 31, the UK formally left the European Union (EU). As a result, we have now entered into an 11-month transition period, as the future UK-EU relationship is negotiated.

For our community, there are numerous issues that need to be resolved, with one of these being in relation to scientific research.

As a member state, the UK has participated in Horizon 2020 – an EU programme that has made nearly €80 billion of funding available across seven years to deliver cutting-edge research and innovation. And during the transition period, UK scientists and businesses can still drive projects and apply for grants within the initiative.

Horizon 2020 is due to finish at the end of the year. Its successor, Horizon Europe, is set to run from 2021 to 2027, with a funding budget likely to be €20 billion higher.

However, there is a question mark as to the level of involvement that the UK will have with Horizon Europe.

For its part, the EU has stressed that the UK will not be able to cherry pick on research cooperation and will be treated like any third country that wishes to be involved (for instance, 16 countries outside the EU, such as Norway, Switzerland and Israel, have associated with Horizon 2020).

Meanwhile, when being quizzed last month on the subject in the House of Lords, Lord Duncan of Springbank, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, initially put the ball back into the EU’s court, stating: “Horizon Europe has not yet been determined and we cannot therefore be sure exactly what it will look like or how we can engage with it until the EU has completed those operations.”

But in a subsequent answer, he then added: “We have been very clear thus far that we wish to participate [with the Horizon programme] going forward.

“The nature of the association agreement [which will codify the future relationship] will be subject to those ongoing negotiations, but for scientists on both sides of the channel and of the Irish Sea, our collaboration is as vital now as it has ever been.”

This follows remarks by Chris Skidmore, the Universities and Science Minister, who told MPs on January 20 that the Government ‘should work towards association with Horizon Europe’, but the final details of the project would need to be known.

One possible reason for the reticence is money, with the UK potentially having to fork out €10 billion over the course of the programme to participate.

Despite this, many feel that the benefit of involvement outweighs the cost. Indeed, 36 UK and EU organisations, including Universities UK, the Confederation of British Industry and the European University Association, released a joint statement on Brexit day that called for agreement to be reached before the end of the year for the UK to fully associate with Horizon Europe.

Furthermore, a survey by the Francis Crick Institute of its research group leaders found that 97% of respondents wanted the UK to participate in the programme.

The Brain Tumour Charity supports this position. The UK is the second largest beneficiary (behind Germany) of Horizon 2020 funding, receiving around £1.5 billion each year.

It is imperative, therefore, that we have a strong relationship with Horizon Europe, which provides an opportunity to deliver a breakthrough for our community through medical research.