Science is not a zero sum game. The UK doesn’t win at science because we beat everyone else. Science is best when we work together, and European scientists are our closest collaborators.
The Horizon Europe funding programme brings researchers across Europe together to solve many of our most pressing issues. Not being part of this community will damage science for many years to come, argues Sarion Bowers.
A few weeks ago, our now Prime Minister Liz Truss announced she was launching legal action against the European Union (EU) over the failure to resolve the issue of “association with Horizon Europe”. For many people, this probably appeared to be some niche issue with Europe that failed to register on the collective conscious. For researchers in the UK, it was simply another reminder of the ways in which Brexit has caused problems for UK science.
Horizon Europe is the latest iteration of what the EU calls Framework Programmes. These are 7-year funding Programmes, which provide funds to researchers in EU member states, Associated Countries and are open to some additional “third countries”. Having left the EU, the UK must associate with Horizon Europe if it wishes to receive funding, and perhaps more importantly, lead the large consortia projects it funds.
....as poor a model as association might have been for the UK’s participation in European funding, it now looks like we might not even have that and that the UK is to be locked out of Horizon Europe because of the difficulties over the Northern Ireland protocol.
It is difficult to describe how frustrating and damaging this is to science and scientists both at Sanger and across the UK.
One of the pro-Brexit arguments was that the UK could associate after Brexit and receive all the same benefits. It has always been a concern for the Sanger Institute that the countries associated with the EU’s Framework Programme 7 (FP7), didn’t make a good model for UK association. The amount of money awarded to the UK from FP7 dwarfed the amount awarded to the then associated countries combined1. However, as poor a model as association might have been for the UK’s participation in European funding, it now looks like we might not even have that and that the UK is to be locked out of Horizon Europe because of the difficulties over the Northern Ireland protocol.
It is difficult to describe how frustrating and damaging this is to science and scientists both at Sanger and across the UK. The Sanger Institute does high-risk, massive-scale science, in a way that few other organisations in the world are able to compete with.
Working with organisations across the UK2, we were able to rapidly pivot our sequencing machines and pipelines in the pandemic to sequence the SARS-CoV-2 genome to rapidly identify new variants and provide the UK government with real-time actionable reports. In doing so, we created a template for how infectious disease can be managed in future. At the height of the pandemic we were sequencing 64,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes a week, and our information helped inform the public health response to COVID. At the same time we were sequencing SARS-CoV-2, we completed the sequencing of 225,000 human genomes for UK Biobank on time. Meanwhile, the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca developed and delivered a safe and effective vaccine in record-breaking time and researchers and funders came together to set up the revolutionary RECOVERY trial to find treatments for Covid3. UK science triumphed during the pandemic.
It would be easy to point to the fact that Wellcome, pharmaceutical companies, funders and the UK Government paid for these activities and assume that as no EU money went directly into them, we can get by without association in Horizon Europe. That would be ignoring the fact that European Commission money has been funding discovery science, such as Sanger does, and has been integral to building the ecosystem in the UK and beyond which allowed the Sanger to sit at the heart of a UK network that led the world in using genomics to fight a pandemic. To mangle Isaac Newton: if we were able to see further, it is because we were stood on the shoulders of giants in receipt of European funding.
The Government is proposing that the budget that would have gone into Horizon Europe can be used instead for a UK fund. For the Sanger Institute, the money itself isn’t what concerns us. While the money intended for Horizon Europe may still be used for research (although the UK always got more out of EU research funding schemes than it put in), EU funding brings a lot with it that cannot easily be replicated at the national level. The EU funding our researchers apply for is highly competitive and very prestigious. Being awarded an EU grant is a boost to researchers’ careers, and places them on the international stage. Being able to apply for EU funding, or as it seems will be the case, not being able to apply for it, is a huge consideration for many scientists when applying for jobs. Not being able to participate in Horizon Europe and benefit from the deep pool of collaborative networks available across the EU will make recruiting and retaining the best scientists significantly more challenging for the UK, at a time when recruitment is already very difficult.
Science is not and never has been a zero sum game. The UK doesn’t win at science because we beat everyone else. We win together or we lose together. Not associating to Horizon Europe will be a loss for the UK and the EU.
Science is not and never has been a zero sum game. The UK doesn’t win at science because we beat everyone else. We win together or we lose together. Not associating to Horizon Europe will be a loss for the UK and the EU. European scientists are our closest collaborators and science is best when it is done together. Science, historically, has transcended diplomatic disputes and can be the bridge that builds stronger and better relationships with our allies and those not so close to us. At a time when the UK faces many real challenges, and people are facing hardships, science can make the UK a global leader. Science can bring us prestige and respect on the world stage, and support UK health and prosperity, but we cannot do that by making ourselves small.