The United Kingdom (U.K.) is set to rejoin the European Union's (EU) preeminent science R&D funding program, after a prolonged hiatus resulting from Brexit.
The joint statement, issued by the European Commission (EC) and the U.K., hailed the news as a "landmark moment" for scientific collaboration between the U.K. and EU, with little acknowledgement of their former alliance that stuttered to a halt roughly two years previous.
Horizon Europe, a successor to the previous Horizon 2020 program that the U.K. was part of, is a seven-year initiative designed to fund innovation and foster collaboration across the EU and beyond. Indeed, while Horizon was initially geared toward EU countries only, it has expanded its scope in recent years to include partnerships with nearly a dozen associated member countries, including Ukraine, Armenia, Israel and New Zealand.
While the U.K. exited the EU bloc in January, 2020, it had agreed associate membership status to remain in the Horizon program. The following year, separate trade disagreements related to the U.K. and EU's Northern Ireland Protocol which constituted part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, meant that the European Commission (EC) effectively blocked the U.K.'s participation in Horizon.
In November 2021, thousands of EU research and academic institutions spanning universities, academies of science and rectors’ associations issued a joint statement to the EC, calling for the U.K.'s immediate readmission to Horizon Europe.
"We have a long history of close and trusted collaboration and shared success with the U.K.," they wrote. "The strength of those partnerships has provided enormous benefits to excellent research, resulting in countless collaborations to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges, boosting competitiveness and growth."
Despite pressure from multiple sides, the impasse will have lasted well over two years by the time the U.K. is formally back on Horizon. Starting from January 1, 2024, the U.K. will rejoin the program -- in addition to the separate Copernicus Earth observation satellite program -- to the cost of €2.6 billion ($2.8 billion) per year. This will run for the remainder of Horizon Europe's timeline, which is through 2027.
Dom Hallas, executive director of the not-for-profit Startup Coalition, acknowledged the importance of Horizon to the U.K.'s startup ecosystem.
"Tech innovation and research crosses borders every day, so it’s obviously good for British and European policy to do the same," he told TechCrunch.
With some €96 billion ($102 billion) in the Horizon pot, 35% of which is earmarked for climate research, any legal entity from member countries can apply for Horizon Europe funding.
At a broad level, the program's intention is to create jobs, boost economic growth and spur "industrial competitiveness." However, it's also about supporting higher-risk R&D that might otherwise never receive funding from the private sphere, with 70% of the fund's SME budget allocated for breakthrough innovations "that may be too risky for private investors."
This could be particularly beneficial for university spinouts working on early-stage R&D, where a working prototype or commercial product might be years away. And for the U.K., which is a major contributor to R&D in fields such as AI, quantum computing and biotech, securing public funding might also give confidence to private investors, creating a snowball effect.
Ekaterina Almasque, general partner at early-stage VC fund OpenOcean, which includes Oxford University as a limited partner, says that today's news stands to benefit the whole tech industry -- both in the U.K. and across Europe.
“This renewed commitment to Horizon is not only a positive for the spinout ecosystem, but also bolsters the entire tech sector, making it more attractive to investors to back the next market leader," Almasque said in a statement issued to TechCrunch. "Research and development serves as the backbone of the U.K. tech economy, and prolonged uncertainty would have eroded confidence. In fields like quantum technology, where progress unfolds over decades, having a clear trajectory of funding is paramount to ensure innovation continues unhindered."
It is worth noting that today's announcement amounts to an "agreement in principle," meaning that it's still to be rubberstamped by the relevant EU committees and councils. This is expected to happen before the U.K.'s formal reentry in early 2024.