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On 24 December, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a Brexit deal that would preserve access to several European research programs.

Paul Grover AP

Brexit deal secures U.K. access to European research funds

U.K. researchers will remain eligible for European research funding despite the country having left the European Union, thanks to a long-term trade and cooperation agreement struck on 24 December.

The deal was reached after negotiators finally agreed on fishing rights, which had stalled negotiations, and most of its 1246 pages set out the principles of the U.K.-EU relationship from January 2021 onward. But the deal and its accompanying declarations contain key passages about research: In exchange for a contribution to the EU budget, the United Kingdom will join the forthcoming Horizon Europe research program, which will spend €85 billion over the next 7 years.

Mike Galsworthy, co-founder of anti-Brexit campaign group Scientists for EU and a visiting researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is pleased by the access to Horizon Europe funds. But he laments the loss of U.K. influence over the program and how the money is spent, because those decisions will only be made by EU countries.

U.K.-based researchers were among the largest beneficiaries of Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe’s predecessor, but there were fears that post-Brexit Horizon Europe membership might be too costly. Non-EU countries can pay for “associate” status, allowing researchers to apply for and receive EU funding on more or less the same basis as EU researchers. There are 16 non-EU countries associated with Horizon 2020, including Switzerland and Israel, but new agreements must be signed for Horizon Europe.

Association fees are calculated on the basis of gross domestic product, but after Swiss and Israeli researchers won more from Horizon 2020 than their governments paid in, the European Union revised rules for Horizon Europe so that associate nations would pay more in such scenarios. Vivienne Stern, director of advocacy group Universities UK International, says she’s relieved the United Kingdom agreed to an association fee. “In the last few weeks, I had become genuinely concerned that the gap between the U.K. and the EU on the question of association to Horizon Europe was just too wide and that it wasn’t narrowing,” she says.

One part of Horizon Europe that will be off limits to U.K. researchers is the European Innovation Council Accelerator, a new equity fund that invests in tech startups. “There is obviously a nervousness in the EU about the U.K.’s innovation performance, and Horizon effectively helping the U.K. to compete as a near neighbor but competitor economy,” Stern says.

The United Kingdom will also pay to continue its involvement with a handful of other research programs. It will participate in nuclear research under the Euratom treaty, despite having withdrawn from the treaty itself. Its involvement with the international fusion energy project ITER will continue via an EU-run partnership that also includes Switzerland. And it will remain involved with the Copernicus Earth observation satellite program and the European Space Surveillance and Tracking system, which monitors threats from space debris. However, the country will not get access to special military-only signals from the Galileo satellite navigation system—Europe’s answer to GPS. The United Kingdom has contributed about €1.4 billion to Galileo’s creation, more than 10% of its budget. Losing access to parts of Galileo is “a massive loss,” given the U.K. investments, Galsworthy says.

Stern and Galsworthy both say they hope U.K. researchers can regain their leading role in Horizon projects: Their participation in Horizon 2020 fell sharply from 2017, when the country gave formal notice of its intention to leave the European Union. “We need to try and gather back our position on Horizon Europe,” Galsworthy says. But, he adds, some uncertainty remains, because the European Union could unilaterally “blow up” the entire deal if it believes the United Kingdom has reneged on any particular part of it.

This has happened before: In 2014, the European Union barred Switzerland from Horizon 2020 for 3 years after a national referendum rejected a Swiss-EU agreement allowing Croatian access to the Swiss labor market. Another referendum will be held on a new framework for Swiss-EU relations, and Swiss researchers fear being shut out again; even though the Horizon Europe association agreement is legally unrelated, the European Union can use it as leverage.

The U.K.-EU deal is expected to be provisionally applied from 1 January through 28 February 2021, by which time it needs to be ratified by the U.K. Parliament and the European Council—where all 27 national leaders must agree unanimously. The European Parliament will also be asked to give its consent before the council formally adopts the deal on behalf of the European Union.

*Correction, 5 January 2021, 10:10 a.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested all of the European Innovation Council (EIC) would be off-limits to U.K. researchers, when it is only the EIC Accelerator program that they cannot participate in.