Horizon membership: a deal that works for Scotland, the UK and EU

Professor Iain Gillespie is the Convener of our Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee and Principal at the University of Dundee. In an opinion piece for The Herald which ran in its Monday 17 April 2023 edition, he outlines why it’s imperative a deal to secure Horizon membership for the UK is vital.

Last month week I led a delegation of university leaders as part of a Scottish Council for Development and Industry mission. Whilst the UK may have left the European Union, the need for UK universities to retain links with our counterparts across Europe has never been more important. Almost every key challenge and opportunity facing the world, from achieving net zero to harnessing Artificial Intelligence will be addressed through collaboration making it vitally important to support research across borders.

The timing of the visit couldn’t have been better. Following the Windsor Agreement in February, we now have a clearer path for the UK to re-join Horizon Europe, the key funder of research and innovation across Europe.

Both Scotland and the UK have always done very well out of Horizon. Funding has been based on excellence, and Scotland’s universities produce a high proportion of world-leading research. Over the last multi-year Horizon programme, Scotland brought in close to €900 million, boosting our innovation economy.  To no longer be a part of Horizon would be a major disadvantage to Scotland’s research and development landscape but also to Scotland’s economy more widely.

The scale of the resource is significant but it’s where the investment goes that matters. It funds vital research that changes people’s lives, creates highly skilled jobs, supports emerging industries within our regions and those research and industry clusters then attract further investment from overseas. Horizon builds deep international partnerships across universities and industry. Within Dundee, I can see the connections between past European research investment in my institution’s research strengths into the cluster of life sciences we have in the city and across Tayside.

A further example of Horizon’s importance is a research programme led by Professor Mel Woods. Recognising how we use the earth’s natural resources matters more than ever, Horizon 2020 funded a consortium, led from Dundee of 18 partners, including the Met Office and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. They explored the potential of community-based environmental monitoring. Her team trained 20,000 food growers across 13 countries that resulted in 516 million soil data entries that could be compared. One of the key breakthroughs was farmers in the Canary Islands reducing their use of water for irrigation by 30%. This sort of project with the potential for harnessing climate action at a continental scale will be key to dealing with the climate emergency.

Back in Brussels last month, the range of people we met reiterated a clear message: those on the EU-side want the UK in Horizon for the long-term. Businesses and industry in the UK as well as universities want to be a part of Horizon, not just in the current programme that finishes in 2027 but in successor programmes. That’s hugely reassuring and demonstrates our expertise is valued by our counterparts across Europe.

The UK Government wants our research to make the nation a science superpower and, in a post-Brexit context we understand that it has a responsibility to secure the best return from investment in international partnerships. Scotland’s higher education community is clear that association to Horizon Europe is the best way to secure this. With a relatively clear path ahead, we hope negotiations will urgently achieve the UK’s association to Horizon Europe.