After months of uncertainty, the government said a “bespoke” new agreement has been signed allowing British researchers to apply for grants and take part in Horizon projects.
The move comes as a huge relief to scientists, amid warnings that UK researchers have been missing out on collaboration with colleagues in Europe in much of the two years since Brexit.
It comes six months after Mr Sunak hammered out a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol and trade.
On Horizon, Britain initially wanted associate membership under the post-Brexit trade deal brokered with Brussels – but was frozen out in a tit-for-tat retaliation in Mr Johnson’s dispute over Northern Ireland arrangements.
Announcing the deal on Thursday, Mr Sunak said he wanted to get the “right deal for the UK, unlocking unparalleled research opportunities” while making sure it was “the right deal for British taxpayers”.
Labour’s Peter Kyle, the shadow science minister, said Britain had “missed out on two years of innovation” and criticised “two years of wasted opportunity”. He said ministers now need to “get on with it”.
Prof Paul Stewart, the Academy of Medical Sciences’ vice president of clinical, said it was a “pivotal moment for UK science” and researchers were “celebrating the tremendous news”.
The scientist said it “sends a very strong message that the UK is open for business”, adding: “Health research is an international endeavour, it relies on supporting the best ideas, but also on creating cross-border networks.”
Associate membership of Horizon was agreed in principle as part of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal – but the issue became a victim of the ongoing row about the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Sunak government had drawn up an alternative scheme, Pioneer, as a research programme with other international partners. No 10 claimed that it was serious about the plan B, with Mr Sunak said to be concerned about the cost of Horizon membership.
But the “Windsor Framework” deal with the EU Commission aimed at resolving the row over post-Brexit checks on goods going into Northern Ireland raised hopes a science deal could be done.
The PM spoke to EU Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen in a call on Wednesday to confirm the deal. The UK will not need to pay into the scheme for the two years it was absent. British costs will begin again in January 2024.
“With a wealth of expertise and experience to bring to the global stage, we have delivered a deal that enables UK scientists to confidently take part in the world’s largest research collaboration programme – Horizon Europe,” Mr Sunak said.
The government also pointed to the inclusion of a so-called “clawback” mechanism in the deal, which will mean that the UK will be compensated if British scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme.
Horizon is a collaboration involving Europe’s leading research institutes and tech companies. EU member states contribute funds, which are then allocated to individuals or organisations on merit to explore subjects such as climate change, medical advances and AI.
Universities UK president Prof Dame Sally Mapstone said academics would now “do everything possible to ensure the UK rapidly bounces back towards previous levels of participation”.
Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, called it “fantastic news”, adding: “Science has so much to offer in terms of tackling global challenges and improving lives – today the government and the EU have given that a big boost.”