Both U.K. and international geoscientists working in the United Kingdom are caught in the middle of an argument between the U.K. government and the European Union (EU), threatening access to Europe’s flagship funding program, Horizon Europe. Researchers may be faced with the choice of losing Horizon Europe funding or moving to an EU country.
Following Brexit, the United Kingdom was set to maintain close ties with Horizon Europe, along with other EU science programs including the Copernicus Earth observation framework and Space Surveillance and Tracking. But involvement is now threatened by a political disagreement over trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.
“It’s a disaster for U.K. and EU science. No one wins from this misuse of science cooperation as a pawn in political disputes,” said Jonathan Bamber, an Earth observation and cryosphere researcher at the University of Bristol who has a leading role in several current European research projects.
Horizon Europe has a budget of €95.5 billion (almost $100 billion) for the period 2021–2027. It is a vehicle for researchers to access funds and collaborate on global challenges such as climate change, energy, and food security. Funds and leadership opportunities are open to institutions within the 27 EU member states, as well as to those in Norway, Turkey, and 14 other associate countries.
Following the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU on 1 January 2020, the United Kingdom was on track for Horizon Europe associate status as part of a broader agreement on trade and cooperation. But ratification of that deal has stalled because of issues surrounding Horizon Europe’s Northern Ireland protocol—special measures designed to uphold EU trade rules while protecting the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that helps maintain peace in Northern Ireland.
The EU has yet to sign the deal and in June 2022 launched legal action against the United Kingdom, accusing it of failing to comply with the Northern Ireland protocol, mostly surrounding failure to comply with customs and excise fees. In response, the U.K. government launched formal consultations with the EU in August 2022, with U.K. foreign secretary Liz Truss accusing the EU of “repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation.”
Debate on the status of U.K.-based researchers in Horizon Europe is expected to remain at an impasse until a new prime minister is elected in the United Kingdom. In July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced he would be stepping down amid political pressure, and the governing Conservative Party is expected to announce a new leader on 5 September. Truss is one of two remaining candidates.
Researchers in Limbo
In the thick of this political row, scientists in the United Kingdom face an uncertain future. Many are involved in current European research projects or are midway through the process of applying for Horizon Europe funding. Indeed, back in June the European Research Council (ERC)—one of the key bodies managing Horizon Europe grants—confirmed that 143 U.K.-based researchers would lose their ERC grants unless they relocated to an eligible institution within the EU.
Johannes Bahrke, a European Commission spokesperson, said the contested Trade and Cooperation Agreement provided no specific obligation for the EU to associate the United Kingdom to its programs or a precise deadline to do so. Bahrke confirmed, however, that researchers affiliated with U.K. institutions can still apply to Horizon Europe calls for proposals and undergo the evaluation procedures.
The issue is that grant agreements involving funding to U.K. entities can be signed only once the United Kingdom has associate status. “Entities from nonassociated third countries are eligible to participate in Horizon Europe projects without receiving [EU] funding,” Bahrke said.
To reassure researchers at U.K. institutions, the U.K. government recently published its “Plan B,” which addresses procedures in the event that the United Kingdom does not secure associate status. Plan B includes a commitment to fund all U.K. entities in Horizon Europe consortia where grant agreements are signed before 31 March 2025. It also contains longer-term plans for U.K. participation in Horizon Europe projects via “Third Country” status and the creation of alternative funding mechanisms.
Bamber welcomed the government’s interim support but feared that such a unilateral approach could never compete with full participation in Horizon Europe. “If the U.K. is not associated, it makes taking a leadership role more risky, more uncertain, and subject to the vagaries of national decisions and politics rather than being part of a legally binding European network commonly supported,” he said.
It is not just U.K. researchers who would be affected by the United Kingdom exiting the Horizon Europe program. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, scientists from EU nations working in the United Kingdom have faced uncertainty, particularly younger researchers without the established ties to secure their long-term status. According to data published in March by Times Higher Education, the proportion of EU citizens in their 30s within the U.K. university workforce has been declining for the past 4 years. Continued uncertainty over the United Kingdom’s status in Horizon Europe could exacerbate this trend.
Javier Pardo Díaz, director of science policy at the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom (SRUK), said the number of SRUK members has decreased considerably since Brexit. In a 2021 SRUK survey, 94% of respondents stated that the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU will affect their lives, and 65% said the United Kingdom has lost attractiveness. Pardo Díaz said U.K. association with Horizon Europe would enable EU researchers to keep moving to the United Kingdom through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions funding program for doctoral and postdoctoral training. “This is relevant if taking into account that the U.K. has some of the most prestigious universities and research centers in the world,” he said.
Helen Glaves, president of the European Geosciences Union, said it is important to avoid “artificial barriers” that prevent exchange of knowledge and expertise between researchers in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. “For decades, the U.K. has been part of the wider European landscape that has been a world leader in cutting-edge research and innovation,” said Glaves, a data scientist and oceanography researcher at the British Geological Survey. “Many of the common societal challenges currently being addressed by international research teams such as climate change, ensuring food security, or finding cures for diseases do not respect geographical or political boundaries; they require a common effort to find a solution that benefits both humans and the planet.”
—James Dacey (@JamesDacey), Science Writer