Is there hope on the Horizon or is the UK going its own way?
Last updated on Thursday 12 May 2022 on 10:00am
After years of uncertainty, the university sector had high hopes that the UK’s full participation in the Horizon Europe programme as an associated country would be confirmed swiftly after it was included in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement in December 2020. Unfortunately, these hopes have been dashed and the UK remains stuck out in the cold, ineligible to receive Horizon Europe funding from the EU.
Following nearly 18 months of stalemate, we are closer than ever to the UK deciding to go its own way, but there is still time to rescue the deal.
The last 18 months
This lingering uncertainty has already damaged longstanding scientific relationships. UK scientists have been forced to give up leadership roles or even leave research teams all together, to the detriment of many existing projects. These include crucial research aiming to improve climate data and tackle poverty-related diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, among many other examples. The UK held second place in terms of number of participations in Horizon 2020, but early data on Horizon Europe show that the UK has already fallen to seventh place this time around.
Researchers who have applied for the prestigious grants offered by the European Research Council (ERC) have also been affected. The ERC has recently written to UK winners of grants from 2021 calls to tell them that they have two months to relocate to the EU if they want to retain their awards. These researchers are covered by the UK Government’s Horizon Europe guarantee, so they can stay in the UK and still receive the same funding to complete their research. But it is yet another example of the lamentable impact of this delay, with researchers and research getting caught in the crossfire.
Hoping for the best (plan A)
It would be a clear and unambiguous victory for European research and prosperity for politics to be put aside and for the UK to be admitted to Horizon Europe, irrespective of political disagreements over the Northern Ireland protocol. The same applies to Switzerland, which finds itself in a similar situation: a European science powerhouse frozen out of the largest global research funding programme for no good scientific reason.
Stick to Science
The Stick to Science campaign is calling for the UK and Switzerland to be swiftly associated to Horizon Europe and has so far gained the support of nearly 6,000 signatories from across the European and global scientific community, including 11 Nobel laureates.
For now, the official position of the UK and EU is that they are committed to agreeing UK association to Horizon Europe. But what will happen if these pan-European calls for science to be put before politics fail, and the UK continues to be denied entry to Horizon Europe? The UK Government has repeatedly insisted that they will not wait indefinitely for admission.
…preparing for the worst (plan B)
There were two developments in late 2021 which gave some insight into the UK Government’s thinking.. In October’s Spending Review, the Chancellor committed that the £6.9bn set aside for UK participation in EU science programmes would be invested in UK research and development (R&D) if the UK were not to become an associated country. Then, in November 2021, the UK science minister, George Freeman MP, published an open letter to the R&D sector setting out his top-level ideas for this scenario, which he described as ‘plan B’. These included a new, ambitious global talent scheme, investment in the UK innovation funding ecosystem, and new opportunities to collaborate with researchers across the globe.
Since then, the government has accelerated its work on plan B, so they are assured the UK R&D funding system has a viable long-term plan in case they decide to go it alone. In this scenario, the short-term plan would be just as important for ensuring universities can navigate what would be a sudden and dramatic change in the R&D funding landscape.
Our take on plan B
Universities UK International has set out several recommendations to the government for how this risk should be managed. These include both short-term measures to stabilise the university research base and ideas for long-term alternatives.
Immediately following any decision not to associate, we are asking for:
A commitment to completing an assessment at a domestic level of those ERC and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action funding bids which would become ineligible for EU funding when the UK changes its policy on association
Budget increases for upcoming domestic grant and fellowship calls, such as the UKRI Future Leader Fellowships and other national academy schemes
The government to deliver on its R&D Roadmap commitment to fund third country participation in a way that ensures there are no additional rules or limit on UK involvement, nor any secondary assessment of UK bids
A flexible block grant to be allocated to UK universities on the basis of Horizon 2020 receipts to cushion the loss of EU funding, in anticipation of a steep drop in UK participation when it becomes a third country
In the long-term, the sector will need a new and ambitious plan to boost global collaboration with research, development and innovation partners across the world.
Our proposals include:
New schemes to attract and retain world-leading academics and enable global research mobility
More bilateral science funding agreement with developed economies across the world, especially in Europe and including bottom-up opportunities
Funding to stimulate new international business investment in UK university research and innovation
Support for internationally collaborative PhDs between UK universities and institutions overseas, including with industrial partners
There is still time to rescue plan A and avert this worst-case scenario.
As the Stick to Science campaign is already doing, we need the European research and innovation community to speak loudly and with one voice, telling our governments that this path risks a severe and self-inflicted wound to our continent’s scientific potential. But the clock is ticking.
Individuals and organisations can join the Stick to Science campaign by signing the initiative on the website and following the Twitter and LinkedIn accounts to stay up to date with the latest information on the campaign.