UK government downplays £1.6B cut from Horizon Europe association fund

23 Feb 2023 | News

Having missed out on the first two years, the government says it will not be paying in the full £6.9B put aside to join the research programme. And with association still to be agreed, plans for alternatives are promised soon  

The UK's Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has returned £1.6 billion of funds to the Treasury, which had previously been allocated for Horizon Europe association or domestic alternatives. Photo:

The UK still has enough funding available for its participation in Horizon Europe, despite a decision to return £1.6 billion from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to the Treasury, according to a government spokesman.

The transfer of £1.6 billion that was supposedly ringfenced for research was made public earlier this week when the government released its budget estimates for the year. The money was part of the £6.9 billion allocated to pay for the UK’s participation in the EU’s main research and innovation programme.

However, the association agreement between the UK and the EU is hostage to resolution of the broader post-Brexit row over the operation of the protocol under which Northern Ireland remained in the EU single market. Officials in the European Commission have previously confirmed that Horizon Europe association will not happen until there is a new agreement on Northern Ireland.

The EU and the UK signed a trade agreement which included a provision on Horizon Europe association in December 2020. The programme kicked off a few weeks later, but UK researchers have been kept in limbo since then. With the delay, the UK government says it will not be required to pay all the £6.9 billion it had committed for participating in the EU’s research and innovation programme up until 2025.

“Funding remains available to finalise association with EU programmes, but we have been clear that we will only pay for the periods of association,” a government spokesman said in a statement sent to Science|Business.

Providing certainty

Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor of Swansea University and board member of Universities UK, said it is disappointing to see some of the funding earmarked for Horizon Europe returned to the Treasury.

“While we understand that this money would not in its entirety have gone to fund UK research in the current year, any amount that has been lost would be concerning,” Boyle said. “We would be keen to understand whether more of this funding could have been released to support research and innovation activities in the current year, or the resources rolled forward to provide certainty over the UK's commitment to securing association.”

The government spokesman also noted that, if the UK does not associate to Horizon Europe, researchers and businesses will receive “at least as much money as they would have done from Horizon over the spending review period.”

But universities in the UK are worried about the long term-impact of the cut on research and innovation investments. Boyle said the government should explain how it plans to make good on its promise to make the UK a global science and technology superpower. “It is vital that investment in UK research and international collaboration must match the government’s […] ambition,” Boyle said.

To mitigate the losses incurred by the delay, the UK government has established a Horizon guarantee giving successful Horizon Europe applicants the full value of their missed EU funding if they choose to remain at a UK host institution throughout the grant period. So far, £645 million have been allocated so through the guarantee, the government says.

In the meantime, the government is also working on alternative programmes, details of which it says will be published soon.

However, UK research organisations and universities continue urging politicians in London and Brussels to finalise the association deal. “The ongoing failure to ratify the UK’s association to Horizon Europe represents a loss to European science as much as it does to the UK,” said Boyle.

According to political rumour mills on both sides of the channel, London and Brussels are likely to reach an agreement on the status of Northern Ireland in the EU single market this week. However, such rumours have not been confirmed by any official reports.

Editor's note: This article has been updated 7 April. The UK government had planned to pay £6.9 billion into Horizon Europe up until 2025. The total contribution of the UK for the full length of the EU research programme has been estimated around £15 billion.

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