It’s time to let British scientists rejoin the Horizon Europe programme

We should be honest about the damage done to British science by Brexit

March 22, 2023
A 2022 conference which analysed the first year of operation of Horizon Europe. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
A 2022 conference which analysed the first year of operation of Horizon Europe. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The agreement reached between Rishi Sunak and the European Commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen on the Northern Ireland Protocol has been widely received as a triumph for the hitherto beleaguered prime minister. It is certainly good news for all parties, although reveals not so much Sunak’s diplomatic acumen (the deal was there for the taking) as the importance of having negotiators who know what negotiation actually means. But the news has also heartened British scientists, whose continued participation in the EU’s €95.5bn Horizon Europe research programme had been held hostage to finding a resolution of the protocol.

But although talks can now commence on how British scientists might rejoin the Horizon programme, Sunak has expressed reservations about doing so. The Financial Times reports that he is said to be sceptical about the value of the scheme, and is still considering other options, including a homegrown alternative that would look for collaborations globally.

Sunak has avowed to make the UK a “global superpower” in science by 2030. His opening move has been to create a new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, headed by Conservative MP Michelle Donelan. But a report published in 2021 by the Council for Science and Technology, co-chaired by the former UK governmental chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, made it clear that “keeping our place at the leading edge of science and technology and securing our status as a science and technology superpower by 2030 means… sustainably increasing investment in science, engineering and technology by at least 50%.”

That point is driven home in a new independent review of the UK’s research and development landscape, conducted at the request of the 2021 Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) Alok Sharma and headed by Nobel laureate biologist Paul Nurse. Its conclusion is stark: “UK RDI [research, development and innovation] is in danger due to underinvestment in the sector by successive Governments, which has undermined the resilience of the RDI endeavour as a whole.” In 2019, the report points out, “Though higher, UK Government expenditure on all domestic R&D still comprised only 0.5% of GDP (DSIT estimates), putting the UK in 27th place in the 36 OECD nations, well behind the top ten nations, who committed between 0.69–1.01% of GDP to R&D.”

But there is more in the way than money. A central obstacle remains Brexit itself. For all Sunak’s rhetoric about “leveraging post-Brexit freedoms”, an honest health check of the state of British science would have to recognise the damage incurred by departure from the EU. Universities and academic institutions have lost an important source of funding and are struggling to attract overseas students and researchers who might have previously viewed the UK as a desirable place to study or work. The notion that the “free” UK can now open to business unfettered by EU law is arguably even more delusional for science than it is for trade, because scientific success relies today on international collaborations in which trust, respect and exchanges of expertise and ideas take years to cultivate. It’s for these same reasons that a belief that the UK can simply make “better” homespun versions of the projects and programmes it has lost from the EU is mistaken. It smacks of the empty, nationalistic self-aggrandisement of the Johnson years (remember that “world-beating” Covid testing system?). It’s hard to start repairing this Brexit damage until it is acknowledged—which of course would be political suicide for Sunak, and seems to be viewed as such by Keir Starmer too. 

The new Independent Review of RDI doesn’t mince its words about Horizon and interactions with the EU: “The Government should support the UK’s leading role as a convener and collaborator in globally important research, and this requires association with the highly respected Horizon Europe programme. Relationships with EU collaborators need to be protected, maintained, and expanded, because the free exchange of researchers, ideas and data with our closest research-intensive neighbours is vital for UK RDI.” This was never in doubt, but there’s never been a better time to spell it out plainly to Sunak and his fellow Eurosceptics.

Besides these obstacles, Sunak’s government has yet to escape the contradictory caprice of its predecessors. Despite the promises of more money for science, British scientists were left reeling by the news in February that £1.6bn (1.92$bn) of funding earmarked for projects in the Horizon program, but unused because so few researchers felt able to apply while that participation remained uncertain, had been returned to the Treasury by Beis. This was despite the clear promise made by that department a year ago that if the UK were unable to associate to Horizon Europe, the funding allocated to Horizon association would go to UK government R&D programmes. Oh, just a year ago? Why, that was two prime ministers ago—it’s history! And that is of course part of the problem, for the recent turnover of ministers (prime or otherwise) has been so high that promises count for nothing and all accountability evaporates. 

A government spokesperson declined to shed light on the matter, telling Nature merely that if the UK doesn’t end up participating in Horizon, “UK researchers and businesses will receive at least as much money as they would have done from Horizon.” What exactly does this mean for that pot of £1.6bn (not an insignificant sum in a science budget of £39.8bn for 2022-25)? Guess away. What we’re seeing here is more of the behaviour normalised during Johnson’s leadership, where specific, awkward questions are deflected with vague reassurances that all is rosy. The result is that even the premier scientific institutions don’t know what to make of the news, except that it looks bad. “The apparent loss of £1.6 billion of funding… undermines the credibility of the Government’s ambitions for science,” says Anne Johnson, president of the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences.

But another reason for scepticism about Sunak’s ambitions for British science has to be Sunak himself. After the pathological lying of Johnson and the economic fairytales of Liz Truss, he seems like a return to grown-up leadership (almost anyone would). But UK scientists would be unwise to regard his enthusiasm for science as more than pious posturing. During the Covid pandemic, Sunak’s over-hastiness in opening up the hospitality sector in the summer of 2020 is thought to have exacerbated the lethal second wave of the autumn and winter—a possibility that it now seems the government knew about and sought to cover up. It was at that crucial time too that was when Sunak helped convene a contingent of maverick “lockdown-sceptic” scientists to dissuade Johnson from authorising another; the ensuing delays probably lost many lives. The interim report from the Commons Privileges Committee on whether Johnson misled Parliament about the lockdown parties can serve to remind us that Sunak too broke the law by contravening lockdown regulations, and he too denied it. And while campaigning for party leadership after Johnson’s downfall, he said that the scientific advisers had probably been given too much influence over pandemic policy—partly, perhaps, a gambit to attract support from the hard libertarian right in the party. “We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did,” he said. “If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”

For all their undeniable differences, Sunak and Johnson evince the same boosterish attitude to British science: good because it’s British, but only if the sentiment is expedient. His hesitation about rejoining Horizon shows that he does not truly understand how the research community works, and that his ideological commitments might yet trump its needs. British scientists will have to work with that as best they can, but they should do so with eyes open.