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UK rejoins Horizon Europe, bringing more cancer research funding

Tim Gunn
by Tim Gunn | News

7 September 2023

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Two cancer researchers looking at a cell image on screen

The UK is rejoining the EU’s flagship funding scheme for scientific research, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed today. 

For the first time since Brexit, scientists and research institutes in the UK will now be able to apply for money from the £81bn (€95bn) Horizon Europe fund, the world’s largest research collaboration programme. 

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, welcomed the announcement. 

“Horizon Europe association is overwhelmingly in the best interests of cancer patients and scientists, and it is great news for cancer research that agreement has finally been reached between the UK and EU,” she said. 

The UK and EU originally struck an agreement for the UK to continue as an associate member of Horizon Europe as part of the Brexit trade deal in 2020. But disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol kept it from being put into practice. 

Negotiations restarted after issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol were resolved in February. 

“There will be relief throughout the research community that the uncertainty of the last two and a half years has come to an end,” continued Mitchell. “Nearly three quarters of respondents to our survey of cancer researchers cited funding from the EU as important for their work, showing how crucial Horizon Europe association is for the future of cancer research.” 

What does Horizon Europe mean for the UK?

Under the “bespoke” new deal, the UK will pay an average of £2.2bn (€2.6bn) a year into Horizon Europe and another EU scheme called Copernicus, a programme for monitoring the Earth from satellites. Contributions are due to start from January 2024.   

The agreement includes a clause ensuring the UK can be “compensated should UK scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme”. 

“We hope that this deal paves the way for the UK’s ongoing participation in future European research programmes,” said Mitchell. “It is essential that the European Commission, the UK Government and UK research funders work with urgency to rebuild the strong position the UK occupied in the Horizon programme, and get funds and global collaboration flowing again into our research institutions.” 

One of Mitchell’s predecessors, Nobel prize-winning cancer researcher Sir Paul Nurse, also hailed the deal, adding: “I am thrilled to finally see that partnerships with EU scientists can continue. This is an essential step in re-building and strengthening our global scientific standing.” 

I don't care about geographical boundaries in Europe (or most of the rest of the world). I just care about scientists being able to work together.

- Response to our survey of people affected by cancer

Previously, Cancer Research UK-funded researcher Professor Julian Downward, Head of the Oncogene Biology Lab at the Francis Crick Institute, stressed what the UK was missing out on.  

“We need Horizon Europe very badly. The current situation is damaging UK science every day. We are losing top junior faculty regularly who decide to move to EU countries so they can take up European Research Council grants,” he said.  

“The UK faces a brain drain of scientific talent unless we can make the UK more attractive to international talent. Being able to bid for grants in Horizon Europe is an essential step towards that.” 

The new agreement will now need to be ratified by EU member states.