Plan P: UK to replace Horizon Europe with £14.6B Pioneer programme if association talks fail

07 Apr 2023 | News

The long-awaited, go-it-alone alternative for international collaboration in research gets an equivocal reception from the UK science establishment, which is still firmly in favour of joining the EU programme  

The UK government has published the long-awaited Plan B for a research programme to replace involvement in Horizon Europe if association talks fail.

The £14.6 billion that would have gone to Horizon Europe would instead be invested the Pioneer programme to support science, research, technology and innovation, if the UK is not able to secure an association deal on “fair and appropriate terms”.

UK science and technology minister Michelle Donelan said the government is still committed to Horizon Europe association but there must be a backup in case negotiations break down. “We must ensure we have an ambitious alternative ready to go should we need it,” she said.

While acknowledging it makes sense to have an alternative programme lined up, the UK research establishment is still pushing for Horizon Europe association, and had been buoyed up by signs that the freeze would soon be over following the signing of the Windsor framework agreement and the meeting earlier this week between Donelan and EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

“It has been a joy to see the signs of warmth and progress on Horizon Europe negotiations in the last week after a year of stalemate,” said Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, adding, “Of course, it is sensible for the government to prepare alternatives. […] But let not the alternatives get in the way of the progress on both sides towards the goal of a full and cooperative research relationship between the UK and EU.”

Similarly, Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents the UK’s leading research universities, said the start of serious negotiations in Brussels this week over the UK’s participation in EU programmes is a significant step forward. While he welcomed the opportunity to work with government on the development of Pioneer, Bradshaw said, “We have always been clear that it will be a challenge to replicate the full benefits of the world’s largest collaborative research programme, with ready-made routes for talent flow, facilities access and collaboration with multiple countries.”    

Tony McBride, director of policy and public affairs at the Institute of Physics said the government’s priority must be to secure association to Horizon Europe. “We understand the need for a fallback position and are reassured by the fact that the government says these plans will only be used if negotiations are unsuccessful,” he said, adding, “Should it be needed, any alternative to Horizon must also make up for the loss of the established networks, partnerships and infrastructure the UK has benefitted from over many, many years, as well as for the disruption and uncertainty caused by these years of delay.”

That was echoed by Owen Jackson, director of policy at Cancer Research UK, which is the world’s largest independent research organization in this field, who said while there are positive aspects in the proposed Pioneer programme they “don’t match up” to association to Horizon Europe. “UK-based cancer scientists are in a strong position to win funding from Horizon Europe and the EU’s Cancer Mission. But they will be at the margins, rather than at the centre, of these important opportunities if we don’t get association over the line,” Jackson said.

In a similar vein, Paul Boyle, chair of Universities UK said, “While we remain hopeful that negotiations can proceed swiftly to deliver a positive outcome, it is entirely appropriate that the UK has an alternative plan that can be activated should our association prove impossible to agree in a reasonable timeframe.”

Greg Clark, the chair of the science and technology committee in the House of Commons said the committee will organise a hearing on Horizon Europe association on 19 April. “We hope that an agreement will be made quickly, but in case that proves impossible, it is prudent to prepare alternative ways for the UK to continue high quality international research collaboration,” he said.

Ongoing talks

While the government and research stakeholders would still prefer the UK to be associated in Horizon Europe, disagreements over the UK’s financial contribution in the EU research programme, as well as the scope of the UK’s participation could still derail the talks.

On the face of it, the main sticking point in the negotiations seems to be the amount of money the UK has to pay the EU for association, having missed the first two years of the programme. The UK government said its total contribution for the full length of Horizon Europe would have been £14.6 billion. However, the UK treasury took back £1.6 billion foreseen for Horizon Europe payments in 2021 and 2022.

To date, UK researchers taking part in Horizon Europe projects have received £1 billion in government grants, under the safety net scheme that was put in place pending agreement of association.

“Agreement is clearly needed on an appropriate cost for the UK’s association given the years that have been missed,” said Boyle.

In advance of the meeting between Donelan and Gabriel, the European Commission confirmed the UK will not be required to pay into Horizon Europe for the two years it was not associated to the programme, but UK government officials say they are seeking an association deal on fair terms, without detailing what those terms are.

The UK government said it expects “to make a contribution to Horizon that exceeds receipts to UK entities”, adding, “under Pioneer, all our funding would go to UK scientists and innovators”.

UK receipts from Horizon would be uncertain as they depend on the performance of UK participants in competitive processes, but looking at average receipts over the seven years of the preceding Horizon 2020 programme, UK scientists would get over £3 billion more if the Pioneer programme is activated, the government said.  

Donelan said her meeting with Gabriel in Brussels enabled the two sides to “get the ball rolling”, but did not give further details about the terms the UK is seeking in the negotiations. “We hope our negotiations will be successful, and that is our preference, but it must be on the right terms,” she said.

In Brussels, Gabriel described the meeting as an “honest exchange” but details on how she thinks negotiations will unfold were scarce.

If launched, the Pioneer programme would have four pillars.

The first would be focused on investments in discovery research and attracting talent across all career stages. Here, the UK government says it would be able to provide “larger, longer and more flexible awards than Horizon equivalents”.

In the second pillar, Pioneer Global, the government plans to enhance existing international partnerships and establish new ones. It also plans to keep funding consortia wishing to participate in Horizon Europe calls until March 2025.

The third pillar would support business-led innovation, while the fourth would provide additional funding for UK research infrastructures.

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