The UK is stumping up £2 billion in annual dues to rejoin the EU’s Horizon science programme in a post-Brexit breakthrough hailed as “fantastic” for British researchers.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the deal was “what effective engagement with Europe looks like”, but Science Secretary Michelle Donelan laughed and said “no” when asked if the deal represented “mission creep” for Britain to rejoin the European Union.
“But what this deal now does is provide the certainty that they (UK scientists) need and access to world-class facilities,” she told Sky News.
Collaboration in Horizon and the Copernicus space corporation was broken off two years ago when Brussels retaliated against Boris Johnson’s backsliding over the Brexit trade agreement. Rishi Sunak unlocked rejoining by agreeing a separate agreement with the EU over Northern Ireland in March.
He said on Thursday that Horizon was the “right deal for the UK, unlocking unparalleled research opportunities, and also the right deal for British taxpayers”.
Britain had secured a “bespoke” agreement to rejoin the £85 billion Horizon scheme, the prime minister said, trumpeting a rare bit of good news after a week of crisis over crumbling concrete in schools before he jets off later on Thursday to a G20 summit in India.
“Innovation has long been the foundation for prosperity in the UK, from the breakthroughs improving healthcare to the technological advances growing our economy,” Mr Sunak said, after a phone call on Wednesday with European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen.
Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said the new agreement takes UK-EU “cooperation under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement a significant step forward”.
Britain, however, will not be taking part in the bloc’s nuclear technology agency Euratom.
A “clawback” mechanism in the deal will also mean the Government will be compensated if British scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme, Ms Donelan said.
After two years of being shut out of cutting-edge collaboration with EU partners, there was delight from UK scientists including at London Higher, which represents the higher education sector in the capital.
“The confirmation that the UK will rejoin Horizon Europe is welcome news for universities across London, the UK’s top ranked innovation cluster,” said London Higher’s chief executive, Dr Diana Beech.
“The wait to associate to Horizon may have been lengthy but worthwhile, as today’s announcement shores up the future of research, innovation and higher education across the United Kingdom,” she said.
Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, agreed it was “fantastic news”, adding: “Science has so much to offer in terms of tackling global challenges and improving lives. Today the Government and the EU have given that a big boost.”
Labour’s shadow science secretary Peter Kyle said ministers now needed to “get on with it”.
“What we’re missing out on is two years’ worth of innovation,” he said. “Two years of global companies looking around the world for where to base their research centres and choosing other countries than Britain, because we are not part of Horizon. This is two years of wasted opportunity for us as a country.”