Exploring the Horizon: Science, Technology and Britain's Role in the World

Benedict Macon-Cooney Chief Policy Strategist

Anton Spisak Head of Political Leadership

May 2, 2023
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After nearly two years of uncertainty for Britain’s scientists, there was a whiff of hope in the air as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stood on stage with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and declared that the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland means the EU is ready to re-admit the UK to the EU’s valuable Horizon research programme.

Two months later the ink has dried on the new Windsor deal, but Britain’s participation in the €95.5-billion EU programme remains elusive. The talks now appear tangled up in a dispute over money, with Westminster asking whether the terms of participation represent “a good deal” for Britain and Brussels in turn questioning how serious its partner is about joining.

Settling the Money

At the heart of the current disagreement is the UK government’s argument that its annual contribution should be reduced because its late entry has diminished the value of the returns to researchers and scientists.

Britain’s assertion that it should not pay for the period when it did not participate in the programme is reasonable. The terms of contribution for participation in EU programmes such as Horizon are set under the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement sealed by Boris Johnson in December 2020. As part of this, the UK agreed to contribute an amount proportionate to the size of its economy, which is around 18 per cent of that of the EU. For the full seven-year period, which ends in 2027, this would total about €14.5 billion.

A sensible approach would be to agree a pro-rata equivalent for the remaining period. If Britain were to re-join within the first half of this year, its adjusted contribution until 2027 would total about €9 billion. This could be adjusted with a mutually agreed discount rate to account for the projects that might reasonably have been funded if the UK had been a member from the beginning of the research programme.

The Alternative to Horizon

If the UK and EU fail to agree the terms of association, the UK government would need to offer a credible domestic alternative.

The British government has now outlined its “Pioneer” plan, a significant step up from its previous “Plan B”. Under this approach, the government says that researchers would “receive the same amount of funding as the UK would have paid to associate to Horizon had we associated from 2021 to 2027.” This means investing “around £14.6 billion” before the end of 2027–28.

This is a significant commitment – beyond the UK’s expected contribution to Horizon – and it recognises the transformative tech critical to the UK’s future prosperity, including AI, biotech and semiconductors. But the challenges of creating a domestic alternative from scratch shouldn’t be underestimated. The value of participating in Horizon lies not only in funding but also in access to the networks, infrastructure and scale of the EU programme.

The programme has previously funded fusion, vaccines and the Large Hadron Collider. It is the world’s largest collaborative-research programme and under the previous iteration, Horizon 2020, the UK established more than 237,000 collaborative-research links in 163 countries, with 12 per cent of the individual links outside the EU.

This global-network effect means that many countries outside of the EU, such as Israel and New Zealand, participate in and contribute to Horizon so that they can reap both the financial and non-financial benefits of participation.

A Step Beyond Horizon: Britain as a Convener in Global Research

The UK was previously one of the most successful participants in EU research programmes. From 2014 to 2020, for example, it received nearly €8 billion of Horizon funding – around 12 per cent of the total available. If the UK had maintained this track record, it would obtain €11 billion by 2027 in addition to the intangible network and infrastructure benefits that come with Horizon membership.

Regardless of this dividend, the UK’s global science and tech ambitions mean that financial return is important, but not the only factor to consider with regard to investing in research programmes. As Paul Nurse concluded in his recent independent review of the UK’s research, development and innovation landscape, the UK has an opportunity to become a convener in globally important research, but “this requires association with the highly respected Horizon Europe programme.”

Securing association in Horizon should therefore be a priority for any British government that is serious about supercharging science and tech.

But as the UK faces a generational challenge to reshape the state and rebuild its economic model, Horizon membership needs to be complemented with deeper action at home. Many of the elements of Pioneer should be developed as a complement to Horizon if the UK is serious about its ambition to become a global innovation hub. In particular, the focus on removing bureaucracy, encouraging discovery research and attracting leading talent.

In a recent paper, A New National Purpose, we also set out how the government can make science and tech central to a new “strategic state”.  

This strategic focus needs to be clear about the UK’s position. The country is weakened and faces not only the challenge of rebuilding a relationship with the EU, but also the risk of losing its competitive edge in a world of giants. As it stands, the UK seems fated to end up further squeezed between the technological superpowers of the US and China. In a speech last week, the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was clear that building a leading-edge techno-industrial base was central to the country’s ambitions for global leadership today. Many international partners were mentioned. The UK was not among them.

If the UK doesn’t up its game by investing in AI-era infrastructure, treating data as a competitive asset, and ensuring that it is at the frontiers of biotech, clean tech and industries of the future, it will be left behind. Such strength at home will be critical for how Britain defines its role in the world and shows international leadership in critical global areas such AI.

Getting Horizon sorted is just the start of this. There is no reasonable excuse now, with the Windsor framework in the rear-view mirror, to not reach a deal on UK participation in EU programmes. Without a deal, both sides are ultimately bound to lose. The UK needs to begin to change the EU debate by getting into a reasonable relationship with its largest trading partner. The sooner it does, the sooner the government can turn its attention to this monumental generational challenge.

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