A few months ago, Teresa Thurston, a cellular microbiologist at Imperial College London, could not have imagined losing her €1.5 million European research grant. But the United Kingdom’s role in the European Union’s €95 billion Horizon Europe funding program is now crumbling thanks to lingering Brexit disputes, forcing many U.K. grant winners like Thurston to give up grants they thought they could count on.
This week, she and 142 other U.K. grant winners faced a deadline from the European Research Council (ERC), which disburses some of the Horizon Europe money. By 29 June, they had to choose between moving to a European host institution to take up their funding or remaining in the United Kingdom and giving up the prestigious ERC grant. One day before the deadline, 18 U.K.-based grant winners had told ERC they planned to leave for Europe, whereas 20, including Thurston, rejected their ERC grants to stay in the United Kingdom. The remainder had not yet told ERC of their decision.
The impasse over U.K. participation in Horizon Europe deepened this month after the U.K. Parliament began pushing through legislation that would unilaterally override part of the 2020 Brexit agreement that deals with trade in Northern Ireland. This prompted legal action from the European Union, which had already been holding cross-border scientific funding hostage over the matter, and signaled that a resolution was far from near. The U.K. science minister on 15 June said he would unveil details of a “Plan B” Horizon alternative in July, adding that the program will likely begin in September.
In the meantime, a transitional program promises to make up for Horizon grants already won by U.K. researchers. Thurston plans to accept the government’s offer, but she says this backstop doesn’t carry the same prestige or networking opportunities. “It’s not the same,” she says.
ERC President Maria Leptin says she “profoundly” regrets the situation. “I sincerely hope that our political leaders will find a path to allow us to continue working in the future with the research community in the U.K.”
Greg Clark, a U.K. lawmaker and member of a parliamentary science committee, says it’s wrong for the European Union to “weaponize science” to gain advantage in other political arguments. Other components of the Brexit agreement, such as the cross-border transfer of personal data, have gone ahead despite the Northern Ireland dispute. And although damage to U.K. science is considerable, so is damage to science within the EU, he says: “The longer term consequences of excluding excellent U.K. institutions and researchers from collaboration with European institutions can only be to the detriment of both sides.” A European Commission spokesperson said in an email to Science that, given the turmoil, the original Brexit agreement does not oblige the EU to allow U.K. participation in Horizon Europe, nor does it impose a deadline.
The Brexit deal was supposed to preserve U.K. participation. In an arrangement similar to those for other non-EU countries that receive Horizon Europe funds, such as Israel, Turkey, and Norway, the United Kingdom would pay approximately £15 billion into the program over its 7-year period, allowing its researchers to compete for funding. The European Parliament still had to ratify the agreement, but U.K. researchers began to apply for—and win—grants in the first funding rounds of the program.
In April, however, the political impasse over Northern Ireland was ongoing and the Horizon deal was still not ratified. Facing the need to disburse its first round of grants, ERC emailed grant winners asking them to submit letters from Horizon-eligible host institutions within 2 months—or forfeit their grants.
It’s “massively destabilizing,” says Peter Mason, head of global research and innovation policy at Universities UK. “There are these great collaborations—scientific networks—that have been established for decades in some cases, which are being undermined.” James Wilsdon, a research policy expert at the University of Sheffield, adds that “all of this uncertainty is just like acid on collaboration.”
For Thurston, moving to Europe was not practical, because her collaborators were all in the United Kingdom. She also did not want to uproot her family, and she points out that a short-notice move to Europe would be hard for researchers taking care of children, which means women likely face greater impact.
Thiemo Fetzer, an economist at the University of Warwick, reluctantly made the decision to move. A collaborator on his project is employed by the European Commission and would not be able to sign a contract with a U.K.-based institution. Fetzer will now divide his time between the United Kingdom and his European host, which he declined to name because he was still finalizing the agreement. “It’s devastating,” Fetzer says. Winning an ERC grant is “supposed to be a high point of people’s academic careers, and it’s made it really, really difficult.”
European researchers aren’t happy either, says Thomas Jørgensen, president of the European University Association. The European Union’s lack of transparency and poor communication has damaged the profile of Horizon Europe, he says. European researchers were encouraged to join U.K.-led consortia, and then faced chaos as the U.K. partners were no longer able to take their intended leading roles. Some top researchers now feel that EU funding is too bureaucratic and difficult to be worth bothering with again, Jørgensen says.
In theory, the United Kingdom could join Horizon Europe at any time in the coming 7 years if political disputes over Brexit were settled. And Horizon association remains “Plan A,” the U.K. science minister, George Freeman, said in a 15 June parliamentary committee hearing. He could not be reached for comment, but a department spokesperson said, “The U.K. is pushing for association to Horizon Europe as swiftly as possible.”
But Freeman told the committee that if “the phone does not ring” soon, then “Plan B” will begin in September, with the government diverting the £15 billion intended for Horizon into a U.K.-based international program. Freeman described plans to replicate the structure of the Horizon funding scheme, with grants not only for basic research, similar to ERC’s, but also funding for risky, applied, and industrial research.
Wilsdon adds that the bulk of Horizon Europe funding goes toward international research consortia that often involve industrial collaborators. U.K.-based researchers have already been forced to step down from their coordinating roles in Horizon-funded consortia, and Wilsdon thinks it would be tough to re-create these in Freeman’s “Plan B.”
Beth Thompson, a policy director at the Wellcome Trust, shares the concern. “All those researchers’ brains coming together to do something brilliant—that can’t be reproduced at a domestic level,” she says.
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