One of the consequences of Brexit was that the UK was forced out of several key European Union science programs, including the Galileo satnav project and Horizon, the EU's flagship science research scheme. Now, the UK is set to rejoin Horizon as an associate country under what UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called a "bespoke deal."
The UK will also become an associate member of Copernicus, the EU's £8 billion (€9 billion) Earth observation satellite program. It won't be rejoining the Euratom nuclear research group, however, instead choosing to focus on its own nuclear fusion research. Under the terms of the deal, the UK will contribute almost €2.6 billion (£2.2 billion or $2.75 billion) per year on average for its participation in both Horizon and Copernicus.
"We have worked with our EU partners to make sure that this is the right deal for the UK, unlocking unparalleled research opportunities, and also the right deal for British taxpayers," said Sunak. "The EU and U.K. are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point. We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research," added von der Leyen.
Scientists in the UK who feared research isolation expressed relief. "Thank you to the huge number of researchers in the U.K. and across Europe who, over many years, didn’t give up on stressing the importance of international collaboration for science," biomedical researcher Paul Nurse told the Associated Press.
The UK was kept out of Horizon due to a dispute over the Northern Ireland Brexit trading agreement, despite positive negotiations in 2020. A deal was struck for a UK return in February 2023, but negotiations stalled over the UK's level of financial commitment.
A key tenet was that the UK would not pay for the years of absence, but the UK's opposition Labour Party also noted that Britain had missed out on a lot in that time. "Two years of global companies looking around the world for where to base their research centers and choosing other countries than Britain, because we are not part of Horizon," said Labour science spokesman Peter Kyle. "This is two years of wasted opportunity for us as a country."
Horizon Europe "tackles climate change, helps to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and boosts the EU’s competitiveness and growth," according to the European Commission. It includes all EU member states and 17 associate nations as of January 2023, and boasts a budget of €95.5 billion ($102 billion).