The UK is to rejoin the EU’s research programmes Horizon Europe and Copernicus. The move follows an almost three-year hiatus, during which UK-based scientists were unable to lead major research collaborations or receive certain prestigious grants associated with the programmes. However, the UK government has also confirmed that it will not be associating with the Euratom programme, and will instead opt to move forward with its own programme for nuclear fusion research.

Horizon Europe is the world’s largest funding programme for scientific research, with a budget of €95.5 billion (£82 billion) over seven years. Copernicus is the EU’s Earth monitoring programme, with a major emphasis on using satellite data to track atmospheric, land and marine environments. The programmes launched in 2021 and run until 2027.

While UK participation in EU research programmes was agreed during Brexit negotiations in 2020, the country’s status as an associated member was never fully signed off due to related political disputes. The signing of the Windsor Framework in February opened the door to the UK rejoining the programmes, but this was followed by months of discussions as the UK government sought to renegotiate the cost of participation to reflect the lost opportunities for UK researchers in the programmes’ first years.

The UK’s re-association to the EU programmes has now been confirmed by the UK government, following a call between prime minister Rishi Sunak and the European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen on Wednesday 6 September. UK-based researchers will now be eligible to lead Horizon-backed research consortia and receive European research grants.

‘The news is brilliant – it’s absolutely what I think everybody would say is the best outcome,’ says the head of chemistry at the University of Nottingham Steve Howdle, who also serves as the head of the Heads of Chemistry UK group. ‘I don’t know the full details – but the fact that we’re associating, the fact that we should be able to be involved in bids again for European funding, that’s fantastic.’

Howdle describes the loss of opportunities when the UK left Horizon as a ‘very negative and retrograde step’ for researchers. He notes that over the last few years, UK-based scientists were unable to receive prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants, while many European early-career researchers were given ‘pause for thought’ about working in the UK. Statistics released this week showed that the number of UK-based winners of ERC grants had halved year-on-year amid the uncertainty around the country’s participation in European research programmes.

Rejoining the EU programmes will bring major benefits for researchers at all career stages, he adds. ‘You just get the chance to work with consortia across Europe, to forge new links, to go into new areas of science,’ says Howdle. ‘And that happens at the very junior level – the Marie Curie programme is fantastic for new fellowships for people who just finished their PhD or have just stepped out of their first postdoc.’

‘And then when you’re building your research momentum, being involved in consortia, maybe being a small part of a big consortium is a great way to start up your career and provides an alternative funding stream from our own UK funding streams,’ he adds. ‘And then with some of the bigger bids, if you can start to pull together major consortia a bit later in your career when you’re much more senior – bringing in industry, mixing with academia, tackling big problems – that’s all great. And the feeling was that that for UK scientists that had just been taken away from us for the last few years.’

Extensive benefits

Sally Mapstone, the principal of the University of St Andrews and head of the umbrella body Universities UK, said that Horizon allows researchers ‘to do things that would not be possible without that scale of collaboration’.

‘Allowing our scientists to work together, irrespective of borders, is in all of our interests,’ she added. ‘Our universities will now do everything possible to ensure the UK rapidly bounces back towards previous levels of participation and is able to secure genuine value, delivering the wealth of research opportunities available.’

In a statement, the Royal Society of Chemistry chief executive Helen Pain said that the organisation ‘wholeheartedly welcomes’ the agreement. ‘After years of pushing for this outcome, it’s fantastic it has been reached,’ said Pain.

‘Our community has benefitted extensively from previous programmes and so we expect association to Horizon Europe to be extremely welcome and beneficial for our chemical sciences community,’ she added. ‘It will enable productive chemical sciences collaborations to help us tackle some of the biggest challenges of our time, from improving health to tackling climate change.’

While announcing the new agreement, the UK government noted that it would not be associating to the Euratom programme, and will instead take forward its own £650 million fusion energy strategy. According to the government, the decision was made ‘in line with the preferences of the UK fusion sector’, and will ‘involve close international collaboration, including with European partners’.

‘The Euratom decision leaves questions for the chemistry community involved in fusion research,’ says Pain. ‘As with discussions around the Pioneer alternatives over recent months – and what some of the opportunities that highlighted may bring for UK science – we will continue to monitor impacts for our community.’