On 1 January 2024, the UK re-entered Horizon Europe through a bespoke EU agreement. Dr Harshil Patel, Head of Scientific Development, Seqera Labs, celebrates the landmark return.
Tackling the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century requires international collaboration that spans borders.
Such collaboration has been at the center of some of the most dynamic and cutting-edge scientific discoveries of the last century—RNA vaccines, gene editing technology and artificial intelligence, to name just a few. Most, if not all, of the major discoveries in the modern era can be attributed to the work of scientists coming together to solve some of the most complex issues that science has to offer.
The importance of collaboration is self-evident to the scientific community, so there was widespread approval of the government’s decision to rejoin the Horizon Europe initiative earlier last year. In practical terms, the scheme will see the return of EU-wide grants for UK scientists, providing them with the potential for much coveted, long-term financial support.
More broadly, the decision signals an awareness of how intertwined the scientific hubs really are between the UK and the EU. It was very naive to suggest that the UK could “pioneer” global research adrift from our nearest and dearest neighbors in Europe – not because UK researchers and life sciences companies lack the capabilities to do so, but because this is simply not how our scientific research operates.
Fostering collaboration across Europe
Approximately three-quarters of Horizon Europe’s funds are allocated to global challenges and innovations. 40,000 researchers across 142 countries are already taking part and many have long-standing links both to the program and to each other. With the UK’s exit from the European Union, access to these European funds was lost, and with it went a significant number of EU researchers working in the country. What was slowly becoming evident for those in the scientific community was that it was unlikely for the UK to match this power and influence had it chosen to go alone.
Rejoining the Horizon Scheme is not just the right decision because it provides a substantial opportunity for investment in our scientific capabilities, it also fosters the very same collaboration that has historically driven the UK’s contribution to global scientific research and innovation.
The importance of openness
It has become evident that open science is spearheading international collaboration because of the ease in which scientists can share their research. Recent data collected by Seqera from 502 scientists, bioinformaticians, and computational biologists worldwide showed that 72% of those working in life sciences believe open-source tools like Nextflow are “fundamental” to their daily work.
The life sciences sector is one of the primary drivers of open research, which can be illustrated by the popularity of public code repositories like GitHub to nurture collaboration amongst scientists. As software tools and hence data analysis become more reproducible, they facilitate knowledge sharing between both academia and industry, enabling a concerted response to the major health challenges we are currently facing. Open access to the resulting data can also be streamlined with the right tools, reducing costs and complexity, and allowing researchers to publish their findings for the benefit of the wider scientific community.
Rejoining the Horizon Scheme will ensure that these ongoing partnerships continue to flourish, allowing UK researchers who rely on their European counterparts (and vice versa) via open-source platforms, to collaborate formally.
Bigger and bolder discoveries
Genomics has become an important part of the life sciences research process and the UK’s reintegration into Horizon will help to stimulate further investment into the sector. Notably, Seqera recently partnered with Genomics England, an organization established to offer diagnostics and technology to enhance genomic healthcare and streamline patient care in the NHS.
As national schemes such as this begin to gain traction, and as the demand for personalised medicines continues to grow, scientists must be able to build and deploy scalable and reproducible tools which can be used to identify the cause of disease and to develop potential cures based on an individual’s genomic data.
Given the significant costs associated with this research and treatment, making data accessible to other scientists in the field not only saves time and money but also fuels innovation at an accelerated pace.
Collaboration and openness are key to any scientific progress. Rejoining the Horizon scheme empowers international research to flourish and to strengthen our ties within the scientific community.
The move repositions the UK as a leader within an EU-wide knowledge sharing powerhouse, bridging the gap in funding accessibility and increasing capacity to collaborate on potentially living-saving initiatives such as the 100,000 Genomes project and beyond.