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Horizon cannot be the limit of UK science ambitions

Scientist examining set of petri dishes in microbiology lab

Scientist examining set of petri dishes in microbiology lab

The Windsor Framework may have just fired the starting gun on the process of fixing Brexit for the longer term. While the DUP pores over the details, the science community is waiting to see what happens next with the UK’s participation in the world’s largest research endeavour, the €95.5 billion EU science program called “Horizon Europe”.

Horizon might be the most important scientific research partnership nobody outside of academia has heard of. Our involvement in it is critical, however. To “associate” or not. For six years and counting that’s been the question. It’s high time you alighted on an answer.

Horizon was never intended to be an EU-specific thing. In one way or another, Iceland and Israel, Norway and New Zealand, and Turkey and Tunisia, are all already part of Horizon, as is Ukraine. The real question is not whether the verdict on “association” (full participation) will be a victory for Leavers or for Remainers. Rather, what we need to know is: what would an expanded global approach to science in the UK looks like, and where exactly does Horizon fit? We should be proud to invest billions of pounds in science every year. But voters deserve to know what is the strategy for international collaboration that will maximize the return. Such a strategy is not to be found in picking over the bones of the referendum.

If the Windsor Framework heralds a new era of more constructive ties with Brussels, then a sensible conversation about the UK re-joining of Horizon is surely to be had. Ursula von der Leyen suggested as much when she linked progress on the Protocol to a potential agreement for the UK on Horizon.

I say “re-joining”, but we never quite left. After 2016, our continuing participation was sensibly underwritten by the UK government; researchers could apply for flagship Horizon grants, and, if successful, the Treasury would foot the bill. But the confidence to apply quickly disappeared. That confidence would be given a vaccine-like shot in the arm if, as part of renewed cooperation, Horizon’s doors were fully opened to UK researchers.

What do you stand to lose if you don’t sort this out? Not just the large-scale R&D funding we secured competitively through Horizon, although that is important. Access to critical research facilities, our place in established international networks, the attraction and retention of the brightest minds – all of these things are put in serious jeopardy once you decouple from Horizon.

To run a domestic alternative would also likely be much more expensive. I was once responsible, as executive chairman of a UK research council, for planning for such an alternative. If value for the UK taxpayer is a key consideration, the labor and cost involved do not make sense.

Scientists work across borders; they have no choice if they are to push forward the frontiers of knowledge and to turn that knowledge to the benefit of society. The pandemic was a global crisis which demanded a global response. That response came in the form of vaccines whose development relied on the exchange of people and ideas around the world.

A mutually beneficial Horizon association is a necessary step towards a truly global approach to science. But the necessity to work across borders is not confined to Europe. The ability to tackle global challenges like health, energy and the environment requires us to build global partnerships, partly through Horizon but through other interventions, too.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to think through how we maximize the global footprint of UK science. That means thinking bilaterally as well as multilaterally. Working out which nations in the developed world we most want to collaborate with, on what we want to collaborate, and targeting funding accordingly. The scientific superpower of the United States is critical in this regard. It means making our universities highly attractive places for talented researchers from overseas. An efficient visa regime and incentives to mobility are key considerations.

And it means taking seriously our responsibility to help developing countries to develop their science, so that their researchers can collaborate with us more frequently and on a more equal footing.

While it is true that the drivers for collaboration have to be anchored firmly in scientific excellence, we should not be blind to the wider diplomatic benefits of an expanded global approach. The UK is a sought-after partner, and Horizon is a vital gateway to international collaboration, even if it is not the totality of it.

A potential agreement for the UK on Horizon should be coupled to a suite of interventions which grow the global influence of UK science, and thereby grow the influence of the UK full-stop. If Rishi Sunak can pull this off, he will surely have secured a political triumph.

Andrew Thompson is a professor of global history at the University of Oxford. He is a former executive chairman of a UK research council

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