Comment of the week

Albert Einstein

Theoretical physicist

All of science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking.

Researchers in the United Kingdom breathed a cautious sigh of relief yesterday after the government struck a deal with the European Union to fix post-Brexit disputes over issues including trade across Northern Ireland’s border. The political agreement, called the Windsor Framework, is not related to science, but it effectively breaks a 2-year diplomatic deadlock that stood in the way of finalizing separate arrangements with Horizon Europe, the European Union’s giant research funding program.

“Yes, this Windsor Framework is good news for scientists and researchers, in the European Union and in the U.K.,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a joint press conference yesterday with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. “The moment [this deal] is implemented,” she added, “I am happy to start” negotiations on having the United Kingdom join Horizon Europe, which is set to steer some €95 billion to scientists between 2021 and 2027. But the road to final arrangements for science funding will likely be long, observers caution.

Horizon Europe funds individual researchers (via grants from the European Research Council, for example) as well as collaborative, cross-border projects. U.K. researchers used to be among the most successful in winning those grants. But after the country left the European Union in 2020, it needed to craft a specific arrangement for U.K. researchers to compete for the funds.

In December 2020, that deal was struck as part of a wider trade agreement. The parties agreed the United Kingdom would pay a fee to become “associated” with Horizon Europe, like 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—delayed the Horizon Europe arrangement. That left many U.K. researchers in limbo or frustrated with stopgap solutions.

Last week, some of those frustrations boiled up after the U.K. Campaign for Science and Engineering revealed the government had moved back to the treasury about £1.6 billion that had been earmarked for associating with Horizon Europe and Euratom, a European-wide nuclear power program. Researchers feared that “surrendering” the funds meant the money would no longer go to research.

Now, the Windsor deal brings cautious hope. It indicates there is “goodwill” on both sides “after years of uncertainty,” says Martin Smith, head of the policy lab at the Wellcome Trust, a private U.K. research funder.

Before talks on joining Horizon Europe can resume, however, the U.K. Parliament will need to approve the Windsor Framework. Further hurdles will follow. “We believe it is likely that, given the delays that have already occurred, there will be significant further negotiation of the practicalities needed before association can be confirmed,” Jim McDonald, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said in a statement to the U.K. Science Media Centre (SMC). For starters, the United Kingdom would be joining Horizon Europe partway through, as the program started in 2021, so the association fee will likely need to be renegotiated.

Even if a deal is reached, researchers say some of the damage will be hard to undo. “The U.K. dropping out of these collaborative schemes did harm to our standing and some of that harm will be irreversible,” John Hardy, chair of the molecular biology of neurological disease at University College London, told SMC. “Grants will have been written without us and we will now have to try and rejoin these networks, some of which we once led, as supplicants.”

“We should not be naïve about this: it will take many years to rebuild fully the ties that have been cut,” Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said in an email to ScienceInsider. But he hopes U.K. scientists will “fully re-engage” with the EU program.