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Locked out of Horizon Europe, UK commits half a billion to post-Brexit research

EU still fixated with Britain keeping its word on trading arrangement

The UK has earmarked nearly half a billion pounds in "targeted" research investment following what it characterized as the EU's "refusal to finalize UK access to EU programmes Horizon Europe, Euratom and Fusion for Energy."

The money – £484 million ($496 million) – is meant to provide "targeted support for staff retention and local talent strategies at eligible universities and research organisations" as well as making sure the UK labs remain world class and at the cutting edge of R&D, said the UK's business secretary, Grant Shapps, in a statement.

While the press release from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) described this as covering the "EU shortfall," it did not clarify whether this was in fact the "plan B" – a vague strategy for post-Brexit science funding first developed in 2019 – or a part of plan B. We have asked the department for further clarification.

To put the fresh funding in context, the close on half a billion pounds is being set aside for "immediate needs" as the nation waits to join Horizon Europe. However, we understand the funds themselves are being drawn from money set aside for UK associations with Horizon Europe, Euratom and Copernicus.

The United Kingdom received €7 billion ($7.2 billion) in research funding between 2014 and 2020, when British-based scientists were a part of the Horizon 2020 program, Horizon Europe's predecessor. It was, at the time, the second largest recipient of funding after Germany. According to Nature, this €7 billion+ amounted to 12.1 percent of the funding. By comparison, the country's average contribution to the overall EU budget was around 11.4 percent of the total. It also noted that "Germany took home the biggest percentage of Horizon 2020 funding (14.9 percent)", but that contributed "a higher percentage to the overall EU budget (20.9 percent). Scientists we spoke to welcomed the funding but said the bigger problem with the lack of association is less about the funds themselves but the prestige and collaboration opportunities, geographical base of the researchers etc.

The EU's flagship research program, Horizon Europe is the biggest such initiative in world, and will hand out nearly €100 billion ($101 billion) in research funds over the next seven years.

There is also the concern over the UK no longer being part of Euratom and the EU's domestic agency, Fusion for Energy, which controls its access to ITER, the international nuclear fusion engineering megaproject that is attempting to solve the enormous problem of fusion energy. The experiment hopes to generate sustained fusion reactions by replicating the process that takes place on the Sun. The idea is that the highly energetic hydrogen nuclei collide, fuse into heavier helium atoms, and then release the leftover mass as energy – et voila: limitless clean energy.

The ITER Tokamak is under construction in southern France and due to generate its first plasma in December 2025. It's a sad state of affairs, with British scientists so heavily involved in its predecessor, the Joint European Torus (JET). The UK's former science minister, George Freeman, previously stated he thought it "impossible" for UK to reproduce Euratom in "plan B."

The department said that of the £484 million in funding announced yesterday, £42.1m ($49 million) will be set aside to fund the Fusion Industry Programme and £84 million ($99 million) will go towards funding JET.

Meanwhile, universities have complained about losing talented PhD candidates along with their funding – when it became clear that the EU was not going to budge on the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the trading agreement the UK itself negotiated when the country decided to leave the European Union.

The protocol is part of the Brexit deal the UK signed up to, says the European Union, which blasted Britain's attempt to go back on the agreement as both "illegal and unrealistic."

"Not having [Horizon funding] for the British is a big hit," a European scientist told us previously.

In a statement yesterday, Shapps said: "The government is disappointed that the EU is still linking UK association with wider issues, and the UK remains open to association, but cannot wait indefinitely." ®

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