UK’s new science superpower plan makes no mention of joining Horizon Europe

07 Mar 2023 | News

Brexit limbo continues for UK researchers, as the government issues a ten-point strategy for the future of science that fails to commit to association to the EU research programme

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on a recent trip to Northern Ireland. Photo: Number 10 / Flickr

A ten-point government plan designed to grow the economy, improve lives through investment in science, technology and innovation, and “cement” the UK’s position as a science superpower, has conspicuously failed to mention Horizon Europe association as part of the vision.

This has further stirred up fears in the research community that the UK is no longer interested in joining the EU research programme, even though resolution of the row over the position of Northern Ireland in post Brexit trading arrangements appears to open the door to association.

Alongside the new science and technology framework, the government also published an independent review of the country’s R&D landscape by Paul Nurse, Nobel prize winner and director of one of the UK’s most prestigious research organisations, the Francis Crick Institute, in which he says Horizon Europe association is essential.

Relationships with EU collaborators need to be protected, maintained and expanded, because the free exchange of researchers, ideas and data with our closest research-intensive neighbours is vital for UK RDI, the review says.

“All other [international research] arrangements will be utterly inadequate in comparison. We should extend international cooperation, but Horizon Europe has to be the priority,” Nurse told a briefing held to discuss his report.

While they welcomed the government’s recognition of the role science and technology play in economic growth, Nurse’s peers echoed the view that being fully involved in Horizon Europe is a priority.

“It is important that government urgently secures full UK participation to the programme as a key step to delivering on [its] commitment to provide long term stability to the sector,” said Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

It is particularly encouraging to see the emphasis on collaboration across government departments in the new strategy, but even more critical is the UK’s ability to collaborate fully with scientific colleagues across Europe, said Bart De Strooper, director of the UK Dementia Research Institute. “As the UK’s leading biomedical research institute dedicated to neurodegenerative diseases, we are unequivocal that full association to Horizon Europe is our best hope for breakthroughs,” De Strooper said.

Sarah Main, executive director of the lobby group, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said joining Horizon Europe would “accelerate achievement” of the ten point plan, while Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society called for, “speedy association” now that the barriers to this have been removed by the EU.  “We need to see a firm commitment from the prime minister to delivering full association,” he said.

The only reference to Horizon Europe was something of a footnote, saying the government was extending the scheme that guarantees UK funding for successful Horizon Europe applicants to the end of June.

The extension of the funding underwrite is a welcome, but it is “yet another sticking plaster”, Smith said.

UK’s participation in Horizon Europe has been blocked for the past two years, as London and Brussels haggled over the status of Northern Ireland in the EU single market. This issue was finally resolved at the end of February, thanks to the Windsor framework agreement signed by Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

Fuelling disquiet

This disquiet among the great and good of British science is being fuelled by media reports indicating UK prime minister Rishi Sunak is not in favour of channelling UK research money through Brussels. He himself wrote an article about the new science and technology framework in the Times newspaper on Monday which did not mention Horizon Europe, and the BBC has reported he is more in favour of the UK going it alone under Plan B.

The newly appointed science minister Michelle Donelan, told the BBC in an interview that the government has not “deviated away” from its intention to join Horizon Europe, but a deal can only happen on “acceptable and favourable terms,” whilst also saying an agreement needs to be quick so researchers are not kept in limbo for another two years.

Standing in the way of a swift agreement – if that is what the UK government wants to happen - is a request that the UK is exempted from paying a financial contribution for the two years it has lost to political disagreements over the Northern Ireland protocol.

In February the UK treasury took back £1.6 billion that had been hypothecated for payments into Horizon Europe over the past two years.

“The whole of the last two years we've been committed to trying to associate - that's why we put money on one side to be able to pay for Horizon should we be able to unlock that,” Donelan said. “We’ve made progress now with the Windsor agreement, we welcome the sounds that are coming from the EU, we will enter conversations with them, but we’ve been responsible and we’ve developed a plan B for every scenario.”

Prolonged limbo

Research communities on both sides of the channel had hoped the deal would pave the way for a swift association deal, but negotiations may take a while, prolonging an already extensive limbo for UK and EU researchers.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of LERU said a potential preference of the UK government towards association to Pillar I of Horizon Europe, which includes the European Research Council and the Marie Curie student and researcher exchange programme would contrast with association deals pursued by Canada and other countries that focus on collaborative research projects funded through Horizon’s Pillar II. However, Pillar I is the part of the programme “in which the UK has always been very successful,” said Deketelaere.

In a statement on Monday, the UK government said it is ready to work “swiftly and constructively” towards an association deal but has not made any concrete proposals yet. “Ministers will continue to put the interests of businesses and researchers across the UK first so they can take forward the ground-breaking research and drive forward innovation with their international partners,” the statement said.

Both UK and EU research communities have issued statements calling on policymakers on Brussels and London to make association “happen as soon as possible”.

Sunak has also been urged to immediately secure the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe “to avoid further damage to the sector in Scotland” by Scotland’s Higher Education minister, Jamie Hepburn, in a letter to Donelan calling for the UK to formalise access to Horizon Europe.

Nurse said he is optimistic the UK will associate, despite the government’s failure to mention Horizon association in the new framework for research and innovation. This omission may be because Sunak did not have “enough time to consider it carefully, not least because he’s been working in the Northern Ireland protocol that makes this possible,” he said.

Nurse says Sunak is now getting direct communication about this from senior researchers. “The prime minister is a sensible person. Once he’s got that message he will want to associate […] I’m confident it will go ahead.”

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