Towards the Horizon

Good news seems hard to come by these days. But it arrived last Thursday morning for the entire UK higher education sector. At 7 am on Thursday the government announced that it had reached agreement with the European Union that the UK would ‘associate’ to the €85bn EU Horizon Europe programme. Horizon Europe is the world’s largest international science and research collaboration. The UK left Horizon on leaving the EU in January 2020, and whilst the principle of association had remained government policy, it depended on formal – and complex – legal and financial agreements between the EU and the UK. They were impossible to resolve in the atmosphere of mistrust which seemed to be actively promoted by the UK government in the months immediately after Brexit. It was only after the Windsor Framework, which resolved outstanding issues in the management and status of Northern Ireland that the two sides could even begin to address them. In the now nearly four years since the formal date of Brexit, not only has Horizon developed a long way, allocating resources to projects across Europe, but also the UK government had made progress with its own alternative plans – the so-called ‘Pioneer’ programme. One of the early tasks for re-association will be to rebuild the trust and co-operation which academics had come to take for granted during the UK’s EU membership.

There’s only one thing politicians like more than good news, and that’s the opportunity to be the bearer of good news. And so it was for George Freeman, the very able and Europhile Minister for Science. Freeman, whose own professional background lies in Life Science innovation, had always been an enthusiast for association with Horizon, though reportedly the Prime Minister took more convincing. The news of agreement broke during the annual conference of Universities UK. Freeman can be forgiven for not being able to resist the temptation to re-arrange both his and the conference’s diary to allow him to broadcast the good news over zoom on Thursday morning. He could hardly contain his joy, and his audience of vice-chancellors and senior staff were pretty well unanimous in theirs: it was the closest I’ve seen a UUK audience come to a standing ovation.

Horizon matters enormously. It is the world’s biggest collaborative research space. It’s an EU project, but the countries associating include not only non-EU European countries such as Albania and EU near neighbours such as Israel but also countries as far afield as New Zealand and Thailand. It’s a driver of global research collaboration and of international research exchange. For the UK to be outside Horizon was, whatever the aspirations of Pioneer, to put the country outside the mainstream of global research.

The Horizon agreement looks to be a good one. The UK government had cavilled over two major issues: the current phase of Horizon runs from 2020 to 2027, and the UK wanted a carve out for the ‘lost years’ since 2020, which it seems to have won. The UK was also worried about the risks of contributing more than it got back in Horizon funding, and the EU had the mirror concern about the UK gaining too much. The minister argued that the association agreement does allow the UK to win more than it contributes. He’s right about this, although the compromise appears to cap the UK’s funding at 108% of contributions – though in practice that figure is irrelevant for researchers and research proposals.

The Radio 4 Today programme got the Oxford University Vice-Chancellor out of bed early for her verdict and she was also over the moon about the importance of the “very, very positive…exciting'” announcement. In its early comment on the agreement, the National Centre for Universities and Business was both upbeat and sober. It argued that “the UK must now build on this momentum to place a confident step back into the centre of the global science stage”. That’s right. The potential rewards of Horizon for universities and the country will depend on sustaining engagement and re-building relationships. The Wellcome Trust, which had been lobbying hard for association noted that there was “lost ground to make up”, but immediately recognised that “there will be a lot of enthusiasm to get back to collaborating through Horizon Europe”.

The only dissenting voices came from that diminished, and now very small, dyspeptic rump of hard-line Brexiteers, for whom any relationship with the EU is anathema: despite their superficial bullish confidence about the strengths of a ‘global Britain’ they treat our European neighbours with real nervousness. They see the decision on Horizon, which follows hard on the heels of the UK government’s decision to continue to recognise and use the EU’s ‘CE’ quality mark on manufactured goods, as backsliding towards a closer relationship between the UK and the EU. For those of us, and I’m one, who continue to believe that Brexit was a generational act of disastrous national self-harm, we can only hope that the Horizon decision is another step on the long, and unfortunately slow road back.

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