Horizon association is close but not quite there yet

Are we finally about to see movement on Horizon?

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

In a statement today President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said that as soon as the agreement is signed on the new Windsor Framework the EU will begin negotiations on the association of the UK to Horizon.

The key barrier to the admission of the UK to Horizon was ongoing intransigence over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The agreement today, the Windsor Framework, has put in place a hybrid of EU/NI oversight over a range of goods, regulatory, and trade issues. With an agreement now in place, pending a vote in Parliament, association now seems possible if not likely.

The news has been warmly greeted by the science community. There has been intransigence over joining and the slow emergence of a Plan B has seen some partnerships wither, and other potential partnerships not yet come to fruition.

In short, association is seemingly close but not yet assured.

Assuming that the deal can pass the House of Commons there are still some remaining issues.

The first is the cost of association. There will be much internal discussion of the proportion of allocated funding that must be put toward association given that association has taken longer than initially assumed. The UK will no longer obtain a financial surplus from association so it is not necessarily clear cut the Treasury will be willing to pay the same amount for future perceived benefits.

In theory, this is eminently resolvable. Given that Horizon association has been the UK’s preferred position presumably significant work has been going on to ease the financial transition. Even if some funding was clawed back in recent weeks this looks to be a product of the fiscal rules of the Treasury than it does a genuine defunding of science.

The Windsor Framework also implicitly, and likely much to the annoyance of some MPs, accommodates a role of EU law within the UK. There are joint oversight mechanisms and the like but fundamentally the EU will help secure regulatory freedoms across the border. Likewise, to be part of Horizon is to be part of a regulatory ecosystem that will have to accommodate EU law within the UK’s science ecosystem. This may not be the perceived barrier it once was but it is not entirely inconsequential.

Presuming neither finances nor EU law can prevent association there is still the issue of time. The longer the UK goes without association the more difficult association becomes to justify either financially or practically. Another few months is another few months of relationships that will eventually need to be rebuilt.

Today is potentially a massive, incredibly good, positive, day for science. It’s now time to take this momentum to get what seemed next to impossible done.

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