If you were walking around Oxford, Cambridge or the campuses of Imperial or University College London (UCL) on an uncharacteristically sunny afternoon in Britain earlier this week, you might well have heard a curious sound: champagne corks popping.
That’s because, to much fanfare, the UK has rejoined the Horizon Europe programme, a €95.5bn scheme from the EU that supports research and innovation.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — who I dare say would suit a Patagonia gilet and career in venture capital — is unsurprisingly celebrating this as a major coup for post-Brexit Britain. But my advice? Keep the champagne on ice. This is disaster averted, nothing more.
Horizon Europe is the world’s largest research collaboration programme, spanning not just the European Union but also Norway, New Zealand and Israel, with South Korea and Canada hoping to join. The programme provides funding to some of the most embryonic and radical ideas coming out of research institutions and is built on the solid premise that the best science needs to be conducted internationally.
Leaving Horizon was a travesty. The reverberations of the withdrawal will be felt for decades to come.
The UK left Horizon when it left the EU, and re-entry efforts stalled during arguments over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The same, incidentally, was true of the Copernicus programme, which provides observation data that helps countries with early flood and fire warnings.
Sadly, both programmes became political footballs.
Leaving Horizon was a travesty. The reverberations of the withdrawal will be felt for decades to come, as Britain tries to recoup three lost years of research financing and inter-country collaboration.
When the UK left in 2020, the country was receiving the second-highest amount of funding from the programme. In 2018, five of the top eight universities receiving grants were British, with Cambridge, Oxford, University College London and Imperial claiming the top four spots. Long story short, we Brits disproportionately benefitted from the Horizon programme.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Brussels thanks to my role as a European Innovation Council (EIC) jury member. An awkwardness swept across the corridors of power whenever the fate of the UK was mentioned.
They knew that academics and policymakers on both sides of the English Channel wanted Britain — with its world-beating education system and mature technology and investment ecosystems — back in the programme. It was a question of when, not if, we rejoined. In effect, all the damage was for nothing.
The most devastating part of all this is how it affected people. Researchers up and down the UK had the rug pulled from under their feet. They lost funding overnight, with many having to relocate (often with families) to new countries where their lifelong research pursuits could receive better funding.
Turning the tide of this brain drain will not be easy. The majority of those who left won’t rush back just because of this week’s news. Scientific talent in the UK has been decimated, despite (valiant) efforts such as the Tech Nation Global Talent Visa.
But why is Horizon relevant to Sifted readers? This is about science, not B2B SaaS. Well, while this may not directly relate to the latest cloud technology accountancy solution, it is very, very relevant to certain technology verticals.
To make a dog’s dinner of the famous saying often attributed to Sir Isaac Newton — we stand not just on the shoulders of giants, but the shoulders of scientists. It is scientists who take the real risks. The scientific method itself is simply experimentation, failure and iteration. People think that VCs like myself are buying lottery tickets but it’s scientists who will often pour seven-plus years of their lives into an idea before even starting to talk about commercialisation.
We need government interventions like Horizon Europe to support such early-stage experimentation. In fields like biotech, for example, it’s the only way to get started. And contrary to popular belief (or at least to those on a steady diet of MBA Kool-Aid), scientists can often make the most brilliant entrepreneurs.
My firm wants to back companies solving ambitious problems that demand ambitious solutions. Radical experimentation, free from commercial constraint, is essential to working our way to solutions in areas like spacetech, biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and cancer modelling.
Someone on my team said that the UK rejoining Horizon is like putting a plaster on a gaping wound, given the economic damage of Brexit. If anything, I’d say this is more like putting a plaster on a scar. UK tech and the wider economy has been lagging behind faster-growing countries for decades. Though its critics consider it the root of all evil, Britain was declining well before Brexit.
But, all in all, this is definitely good news for the UK, as long as it’s taken within a broader global perspective. The timing provides more tech-related momentum, off the back of the formation last year of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), AKA Moonshot Agency, chaired by Entrepreneur First’s Matt Clifford.
The UK’s science and technology future certainly looks rosier than it did a week ago, though there’s a lot more work still to be done. Perhaps that sound of champagne popping on university campuses would instead be best replaced with sighs of relief.