07 Sep 2023

EU funding on the Horizon again

You may have spotted the recent news that the UK is finally rejoining the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme. This comes as a welcome relief to the UK’s research community, who have been faced with a lengthy period of uncertainty since Brexit. 

Why is this important? 

Progress in cancer research, as well as in so many other conditions, relies upon funding the brightest and best researchers from across the UK and Europe. This flagship programme is worth a hefty €100bn (£85bn) to the research community – making it the world’s largest programme of research cooperation – but years of delay have caused increasing uncertainty, with many researchers becoming concerned about the future of their projects, teams and jobs. And the length of the delay has had a significant impact on international research collaboration, with many UK and EU nationals avoiding working in or partnering with UK institutions so that they could continue their research using EU funding.  

At Leukaemia UK we rely on innovative, forward-thinking researchers whose projects can accelerate progress in the knowledge, treatment and care of leukaemia and related blood cancers. Without access to the talented pool of researchers from across both the UK and Europe, the volume and calibre of future projects could have been in jeopardy.  

What’s the background? 

As with Brexit generally, ‘getting it done’ wasn’t as simple as first expected when it came to our continued involvement in the Horizon programme. When the UK left the EU at the end of January 2020, it reached a £2bn-a-year deal for associate membership of Horizon Europe as part of the UK/EU Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement. However, this arrangement was not activated at that time due to a separate disagreement between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

The disagreement was finally resolved in February 2023, and with this came the hope that the UK research community would be able to take part in Horizon Europe soon after.  

Unfortunately however, the course of Brexit negotiations never did run smooth, and UK involvement was then further delayed by a disagreement over the UK’s contributions for participating in the remaining period of the current seven-year programme.   

Changes at the top spark further uncertainty  

The EU agreed to waive the UK’s joining fee for the period that it had not been a member, but wanted to retain the arrangement made with Boris Johnson’s government about the funding that the UK could expect to receive once it had joined.  

However, the current UK Government wanted to amend this arrangement to make it easier for the UK to terminate the agreement, should the UK receive significantly less funding than it contributes. This was an approach that surprised and frustrated many in the UK research community. During the pre-Brexit period, UK researchers had received around one third more per year in funding than the UK had contributed. It seemed unlikely that the research environment would have changed so much since then that the UK would now find itself contributing significantly more than it receives.  

Not only this, but simultaneously Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was said to be considering an alternative, UK-led, international collaborative research programme, developed by the UK Government, which would then need separate negotiations with the EU.  

What’s next? 

It seems that the messy negotiations and period of uncertainty are behind us for now at least, and the research community has breathed a collective sigh of relief today.  

At Leukaemia UK, we are hopeful that today’s news will unlock further funding opportunities for scientists and clinicians, helping to accelerate progress and ultimately stop leukaemia from devastating lives. 

Dr Tom Simpson, Research Manager at Leukaemia UK 

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