European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel holds a press conference.

EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel has suggested the United Kingdom look at alternatives to Horizon Europe that could allow UK–EU collaborations to continue.Credit: Thierry Monasse/Anadolu Agency/Getty

When Britain left the European Union at the end of January 2020, researchers were assured that this did not mean leaving the EU’s research programme, Horizon Europe. Under the terms of the United Kingdom’s EU exit, the country would keep paying into the €95.5-billion (US$100.6-billion) fund and researchers would continue to be able to access grants (including prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants), lead projects and participate in initiatives such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor facility in France. Scientists let out heavy sighs of relief. Although most had strongly opposed Brexit, access meant that long-standing research partnerships would continue and new ones could be forged.

But a lot has changed since then. Relations between UK and EU policymakers have nose-dived, with researchers trapped in the middle. Those awarded ERC and other grants are now expected to lose them. The principal reason is the British government’s decision to break some of the terms of the separation agreement that it carefully negotiated with the EU.

The UK government has introduced draft legislation into its parliament that is intended to amend trading arrangements between Northern Ireland (which is part of the United Kingdom) and the independent Republic of Ireland (which is a member of the EU). It is doing this unilaterally, instead of using the official dispute-resolution system. This action has triggered legal action by the EU against the United Kingdom for breaking international law.

While all of this is happening, the EU has halted research cooperation. UK recipients of EU grants have been told they will need to move to an EU institution if they want guaranteed access to the funds. Some are reluctantly preparing to do so. The EU’s legal action is likely to make any future UK access to Horizon Europe much more difficult. The legal case will probably take several years to run its course, and Horizon Europe is time-limited: it ends in 2027.

Research leaders in both the EU and the United Kingdom have fought a vocal and high-profile campaign called ‘Stick to Science’, urging politicians to keep politics out of science. But, barring a last-minute change of heart, a science relationship that has lasted some five decades looks likely to come to an end. If and when that happens, it could be the biggest setback to European science cooperation ever seen. Over the years, researchers in mainland Europe have enriched UK science no end — and vice versa.

Unsurprisingly, relations between the UK government and the nation’s scientists are at one of their lowest points in recent memory. Researchers are exasperated over the uncertainty and the lack of detailed communication about what will come next, and have concerns about inconsistencies in the government’s thinking on funding.

UK science minister George Freeman, a biotechnology entrepreneur and intellectual, is preparing a backup global fund for UK researchers that he is informally calling Plan B. Last week, Freeman told a parliamentary inquiry that the government will publish a ‘prospectus’ for this fund before Members of Parliament go on their summer break on 21 July. He added that the fund will include international fellowships for UK researchers and more funding for high-risk, high-reward science similar to that funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

One problem for the minister is that the UK Treasury — the department that is providing the funding — needs to know which of the two options to fund. If the country won’t be joining Horizon Europe and Plan B isn’t ready in time, there’s a fear that some of the allocated funds could be diverted to other spending priorities.

Another reason the scientific community has little confidence in Britain’s funding ambitions is the government’s decision to abruptly end one of the nation’s existing (and popular) global funding schemes, the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), along with the decision not to renew a second global fund, the Newton Fund, when it ended in 2021. The unexpected cancellation of the GCRF, in particular, created chaos for existing projects.

It is imperative that the UK government consults with some of the country’s experts in research funding on the design of a replacement global fund. Consultation should also include organizations such as the Royal Society, the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which were among those responsible for managing and disbursing the GCRF and the Newton Fund.

These funds supported partnerships between researchers in the United Kingdom and international counterparts, including many in low- and middle-income countries, particularly on projects aimed at meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The funds transformed research at many universities, both in the United Kingdom and around the world. By 2019, the GCRF was supporting nearly 5,000 researchers working across more than 800 projects in some 120 countries. An evaluation of the lessons learnt from these experiences could be of huge benefit to the designers of the new global fund.

The story of the United Kingdom’s scientific decoupling from the EU must stand as a warning to researchers around the world: international cooperation in science cannot be taken for granted. Researchers have come to expect that those elected to lead will understand that science and knowledge thrive on partnerships and international exchange — and that in times of political tension, disagreement or conflict, research, knowledge and scholarship should continue in spite of those differences. But the way that the United Kingdom’s rupture with the EU has spilt into science shows that this is not necessarily the case.

As the world enters a much more uncertain phase following the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we urge all researchers to redouble their efforts to maintain and boost collaborations. No action is too small. Added together, acts of solidarity keep collaborations alive in the absence of formal ties, just as they did in previous times of tension and conflict.