Guest Editorial

The announcement that the UK will finally associate to Horizon Europe marked the end of a long and drawn out period of deliberations following the UK’s departure from the European Union.


Rebuilding international research collaboration

Adrian Smith

Sir Adrian Smith is the President of the Royal Society and previously served as Institute Director and Chief Executive of The Alan Turing Institute. He is a mathematician with expertise in Bayesian statistics. Adrian's comprehensive publications on diverse areas of Bayesian statistics have had a major impact on statistical practice in a wide range of disciplines and application areas. Between 2008-2012, he was Director General, Knowledge and Innovation in BIS (now BEIS) and has previously worked with the UK Higher Education Funding and Research Councils. Adrian is Chair of the Board of the Diamond Light Source and is also a board member of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

In September, an agreement was reached between the UK Government and the EU Commission enabling the UK to associate to Horizon Europe. It was close to three years after the principle of association for the UK was agreed as part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and over seven years since the UK voted to leave the EU.

It has taken a long time but throughout that period the research community has been steadfast in arguing the case for association. That was because of the value of the EU programmes – research programmes that have been built up over decades. The networks, collaborations and infrastructure that have been established would have been incredibly difficult to replace – Horizon Europe peer review draws on a pool of 30,000 experts from 34 countries. It was also because of the prestige and competitiveness of Horizon grants that attracts the best of UK scientific excellence and is a springboard to wider international collaboration. And it is one of the world’s biggest programmes at around €95 billion over 7 years.

International collaborators

Science is global but Europe is the UK’s largest and fastest-growing scientific collaborator in terms of co-authorship. Six out of the 10 strongest international collaborators of the UK are European countries with more than a third (33.5%) of UK research papers co-authored with other EU and associated countries, compared with 17.6% with the USA.

Given that we have now secured association, I am keen to look forward to how we make a success of the relationship, but it is also worth briefly reflecting on the damage done by delays. Despite the UKRI guarantee, we have still lost a significant number of good people who decided to take their grants elsewhere. The guarantee served a vital role in keeping funding flowing to UK-based researchers and maintaining a reasonable level of participation, with applications continuing to be submitted and reviewed. That reflected the commitment on both sides to keep the door open, a commitment whose importance should not be underestimated. However, applications have dropped and expertise in dealing with EU funding has been lost, so there is still recovery work to be done.

UK-based researchers have had to take a back seat on collaborations and that has harmed our leadership role. There was also the £1.6 billion allocated for association that was unspent over the past two years and which has been clawed back by the Treasury.

In the predecessor to Horizon Europe, Horizon 2020, the UK was a net beneficiary, securing 12.1% of the nearly €60 billion funding. The UK’s science base is still incredibly strong and so we should be looking to hit the ground running on our full return to Horizon Europe. The UK must continue to be a magnet for people and ideas – and Horizon Europe can be a conduit for that. We all need to focus on the opportunities available and go out there and grasp them.


We will be supported in this effort by our colleagues across Europe. The support of researchers, research institutions and our sister academies across the Continent for UK association was immense and for that we are very grateful. That support was built on a desire to continue to work together. We must take full advantage of that and quickly rebuild any relationships and collaborations that may have suffered in recent years. Those doors will be open.

I think the main reason association was secured was the general recognition, on all sides, that it was a win-win, not just for the research community but for everyone. We all benefit from the progress that research brings. Cure rates for British children with leukaemia are being improved as a result of the IntReAll project involving researchers from Germany and the University of Manchester. Clean buses with zero emissions operate in London and Aberdeen thanks to the UK’s participation in hydrogen fuel cell projects funded by the EU. Oxford Nanopore, an Oxford University spin-out ‘unicorn’ which developed a new generation of DNA sequencing technology to monitor diseases and detect cancer owes many of its sequencing advances to the EU-funded international READNA consortium, which brought together researchers from 16 academic and industrial institutions.

A researcher using Oxford Nanopore’s MinION device for genomic sequencing of the Covid-19 virus at the Quadram Institute, Norwich. 

This win-win has been long recognised but one of the challenges of getting association over the line was the value-for-money case. As I said before, in the predecessor to Horizon Europe the UK was a net beneficiary, securing 12.1% of the nearly €60 billion funding. The Government has accepted the value-for-money case and secured what it considers to be a good deal for the taxpayer – now UK researchers need to go out and prove it is a good deal by taking full advantage of the opportunities. We need that case to be well made in order to ease the process for associating to the next Framework Programme.


So association is secured and that is great news but there are still barriers to collaboration and the flow of people and ideas. Our expensive visa process sends the wrong message and we have to continue to make the case to Government of the need to be at least more competitive with other countries and at best to make it easier for the best talent to want to come to the UK ahead of other destinations.

The UK also needs to make clear that we have a long-term vision for putting research and innovation at the heart of our economy. We have great strengths, built up over decades, but with other countries looking to invest heavily to try and get ahead of us, we can take nothing for granted. The best way to attract talent and investment is to provide long-term stability.

Long term thinking will provide clarity on priorities, encouraging investment. It will create stable conditions to attract and retain the best talent. It will allow us to pursue the most ambitious research and commit to invest in research infrastructure.

Doing more

Ongoing association to Horizon programmes is a great foundation but we can and should look to do more. Science is global and our worldwide collaborations and ability to attract talent must be too. There appears to be political consensus on the central role of research and innovation – as we head into a possible election year, we need to hear more from the parties on how they will scale up investment over a minimum ten-year timescale and create the right conditions for innovation to thrive.

The EU’s research programmes have been of huge benefit to the UK and so association is a major victory. Now we have to move swiftly to capitalise on that victory, not just by securing funding and building collaborations across Europe but by using that as a springboard to ever-wider collaborations. That is how we tackle the big global challenges and drive growth at home.