This is why 22 European university associations, including Universities UK, recently joined forces to highlight the urgent need for clarification on this important issue. But why are concerns about future access to this programme so deeply held? Why does Horizon 2020 matter, and what needs to happen next for universities to maintain and grow their vital research and innovation links with European counterparts?
What is at stake?
Horizon 2020 is the largest multi-lateral international research funding pot in the world, with a budget of nearly €75bn over seven years. Since it began in 2014, the UK is the second most successful country in terms of funding received, and top in terms of number of participations and co-ordinations. However, the most important benefit of this programme is the non-financial, added value. Recent bibliometric analysis commissioned by the Government reveals that internationally co-authored publications continue to have a higher citation impact than publications with institutional or national co-authors, and Horizon 2020 is invaluable in fostering these collaborative links. Moreover, we can achieve more by pooling our resources with European partners. For example, the fact that EU grants are open to applicants from a continent of over half a billion people makes them more competitive than UK grants.
What is the current situation?
Following the referendum in August 2016, the Treasury issued an underwrite which guaranteed that any EU research funding applied for while the UK is still an EU member state would be paid by the UK Government if the EU funding tap were turned off. In addition, the European Commission confirmed that until the UK leaves the EU, UK applicants retain all the rights and responsibilities of a full member state. However, despite positive messages from the Prime Minister in her Lancaster House and Florence speeches, and in the Government's science and innovation discussion paper, there has been no further substantive clarification on the UK's status after Brexit in the past 14 months.
With the triggering of article 50 in March this year, there is now a countdown timer on UK eligibility for EU research funding, standing at just under 17 months. Yet we are no closer to knowing where UK researchers will stand after March 2019. This is extremely problematic for any academics currently planning to submit applications for EU funding. The Horizon 2020 work programme for 2018-20 has now been published, providing details of the calls that the Commission expects to launch over the next three years, including many that will not open until after the UK leaves the EU. These projects can be years in development, so uncertainty over eligibility is putting UK researchers and their consortia partners in an impossible situation.
What do universities need?
In a word, certainty. There is a positive message to relay; namely, that UK researchers will remain fully eligible for EU funding for at least the next 17 months, and the Government has given a cast-iron guarantee to pay out any funding applied for or awarded before we leave. However, there are vital questions that need answering so that academics across Europe can continue to plan the life-changing research projects beyond this timeframe.
Firstly, universities need confirmation that they will be able to participate in the final 20 months of the Horizon 2020 programme as soon as possible. The longer the uncertainty over the UK's future status endures, the more damaging it will be.
Secondly, universities need to know how the Treasury underwrite will work if there is no deal on future eligibility for Horizon 2020 funding. Will this be administered by the UK Government or by the European Commission? And will the Government continue to support UK involvement in collaborative Horizon 2020 projects which permit third country participation?
Finally, universities need to know the Government's longer-term intentions for the successor programme to Horizon 2020, due to start in 2021.
Universities UK firmly believes that continued full participation in these programmes is the best way to ensure that collaborative links with European partners are protected. The sooner the shroud of certainty is lifted, the better for both us and our EU peers.