Last week saw the third round of talks on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Research and innovation communities on both sides of the English Channel are pressing for continued UK association with Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship programme for R&D.

As the UK left the EU earlier this year, more than 35 organisations from across Europe and the UK called for the UK’s full association in EU programmes relating to research, innovation and higher education. The list of signatories from the UK included CBI, UUK, CaSE and the Academy of Medical Sciences while organisations from more than 20 other countries put their names to the statement.

On the face of it, with that level of support, there should be no great difficulty in agreeing UK participation in EU R&D programmes. However negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU is like arm-wrestling with an octopus. Popular support for scientific collaboration is only one part of the picture. Let’s take a look at some of the other issues.

The architecture of the deal

The schedule for last week’s talks, shown in figure 1, puts Horizon Europe into perspective. R&D doesn’t get into the headlines for the negotiating sessions but is included in two sessions ‘Participation in Union Programmes’ near the bottom of the timetable. Trade, meanwhile, gets 12 negotiating sessions and fisheries gets 6. The scheduling no doubt reflects the scale of negotiating challenge as well as the level of importance of individual topics.

Even if both sides agree terms for UK participation in EU R&D programmes, the overall shape of the deal could get in the way.

During the Brexit negotiations, the European Commission preferred to have all parts of the agreement in place before any single part was treated as final. As the EU side liked to say: “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. That approach would mean that if the European Commission is unhappy with UK proposals on fishing, say, they could block the implementation of a deal on science – even if science communities in EU member states and the UK support such a deal.

Agenda for 3rd round of EU UK talksFigure 1: Agenda for the third round of talks between the UK and the EU. 

Value for money

Last year, the then science minister Chris Skidmore commissioned advice on “credible and ambitious alternatives to deliver positive outcomes for science, research and innovation in the event that the UK does not associate [with Horizon Europe]”. Sir Adrian Smith and I provided that advice to the science minister and our report was published by the Government towards the end of 2019.

During the wide consultations that informed our report, we found overwhelming support for UK association with EU programmes. We also observed that:

“Until now, the cost to the UK of participation in EU research and innovation programmes has been met within the UK’s wider financial subscription to the EU. In future, these costs will need to be justified alongside competing demands for public spending.”

In other words, the value for money of participating in EU R&D programmes will need to be assessed and compared with other UK spending priorities. The UK negotiating position on this topic is guarded:

“The UK is ready to consider standard third country participation in certain Union programmes where it is in the UK’s and the EU’s interest that we do so.”

The UK has no experience of justifying spending on EU programmes with the level of rigour that may well be required in future. The justification should take full account of the many intangible benefits that come from participation in these programmes alongside the balance of income and expenditure. But the cost of participation will need to be justified before money can be transferred to Brussels.

Spending pressures and the Covid-19 pandemic

Governments, businesses and universities across the world face huge financial pressures as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Without urgent financial stabilisation from Government, many areas of university research face unmanageable pressures. High performing UK research teams would need to be run down at short notice if money is simply not there to pay the bills. Participation in EU research programmes would be the least of our worries.

That said, the UK starts from strong foundations. In his Budget on 12th March – less than a fortnight before the UK went into lockdown – the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced plans for a huge increase in public investment, rising to £22bn pa by 2024-25. In a statement that day, the Treasury said:

“This landmark investment is the largest and fastest ever expansion in support of researchers and innovative businesses.”

More recently, the Government restated its commitment to growing R&D investment with Business Secretary Alok Sharma referring on 14 May to:

“…the government’s ambitions to increase investment in research and development (R&D) to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, establishing the UK as a global hub for science and technology, now and far into the future.”

This does not mean the UK is awash with cash for R&D. Only the most prudent and careful planning will translate that investment into sustainable and much needed improvements in the business and academic landscape. Only the most rigorous and persuasive arguments will keep that money in R&D and prevent at least some of it being used to meet more pressing needs that were unforeseen only a few weeks ago.