Despite UK deal, it may be slow work to expand Horizon membership to other nations

12 Sep 2023 | News

Canada is closest to a deal for access to EU R&D programme. Japan, South Korea and Switzerland are also in line. But local political and budget issues may make access slower than researchers hope

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a visit Hiroshima, Japan, in May this year where they participated in the G7 Summit. Photo: Dati Bendo / European Union

Now that the UK’s deal to join the EU’s flagship research programme is done, there’s a line of other countries waiting to sign up to the programme. They may have to be patient.

For each of these countries – Switzerland, Canada, Japan and South Korea – a series of potential obstacles to a deal remains, and it isn’t clear how far the EU will bend to accommodate them.

All through months of delay as London and Brussels haggled, EU talks with other potential associated countries were in various states of suspended animation. There had been informal soundings as early as 2018 about the possibility of their “association” to Horizon Europe, the €95.5 billion EU R&D programme founded on the idea of cross-border collaboration. For their research communities, that possibility was hard to ignore – potentially giving them a debit card to tap EU research money supplementing their own, national sources.

But in practice, each country has had its own issues with the EU programme – none more so than the Swiss, for whom Horizon access was largely cut off in 2021 as part of a wider trade dispute with the EU. Of the others, Canada today appears closest to a deal, but it has budget concerns that may slow progress. South Korea is only now preparing its first formal working-group meeting with the EU. And while there have been cordial discussions with Brussels, there’s disagreement within the Japanese government over whether and how to take up the EU offer.  

Such uncertainties leave their respective research communities pushing and praying for action. In the case of Canada, “we have to speed this up,” says Chad Gaffield, CEO of U15, the country’s association of top universities. He calls news of the UK deal “definitely encouraging”. It shows there must be some flexibility on both sides.

“We are encouraging everybody to get in the room and find ways to achieve a relationship, to get Canada access to Horizon Europe.”

Good news in Wellington

So far, of all the potential new entrants to Horizon, only New Zealand moved relatively fast, with a deal announced last year. And this week, Wellington sounded relieved that it won’t be dancing alone with Brussels any longer, “New Zealand warmly welcomes the re-entry of the United Kingdom to the Horizon Europe programme. The UK is likely to be a very strong partner country for NZ, and their association opens up many new possibilities for partnerships,” Loveday Kempthorne, an official of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, said in a statement to Science|Business.

But for the other countries, many officials in Brussels have previously told Science|Business, the UK negotiations were a roadblock. When the UK was an EU member, its R&D community was consistently among the top two grant-winners, alongside Germany – so, its continued participation was a consequential issue for all EU members. But after the 2016 Brexit vote, haggling over the terms of UK participation in Horizon dragged on for seven years. During that time, the EU was unwilling to get too deeply into negotiations with the other potential partner countries lest concessions it made in one set of talks get back to the Brits and complicate the more-important UK-EU deal.

And it was politically sensitive, as the whole idea of inviting rich, non-European countries to join the EU programme was a novelty. Most countries, from the US to Japan, are very cautious about promising foreign access to their national research programmes; it happens, but usually on a very limited scale in hot but uncontroversial fields, like COVID, agriculture and renewable energy. But the EU offer, first discussed publicly by then-research Commissioner Carlos Moedas in a Brussels lunch with eight ambassadors, was a novel way to routinise and expand such collaborations.

The terms of membership

Of course, the EU for decades has invited non-member states to join its R&D programmes – but in the past, all were EU neighbours, from Iceland to Israel. Under the standard terms, each non-EU member pays an agreed sum into the common Horizon money pot, and its researchers and entrepreneurs can compete on equal footing with EU counterparts for research grants. Today, there are 17 such “associated countries.” For all, the resulting R&D collaborations are seen as a way to strengthen their respective research sectors – connecting the best researchers, speeding international market access, and deepening diplomatic relations generally.

But the idea of inviting rich, distant countries like Canada was new – and difficult. In special circumstances, the EU has sometimes paid grants to Canadian researchers; and Canada, like other non-EU members, has had many researchers participate in EU projects with their own national, rather than EU, funding. But formal country membership is a bigger opportunity, permitting open access to funding, free choice of topics, and the chance to lead rather than merely join a project. And yet, says Gaffield, “It does puzzle both Europeans and Canadians that this is more complicated than an outside observer might think.”

Talks to get associate memberships arranged have been slow. Partly because of COVID restrictions, there were no formal, face-to-face negotiations for some years; and EU officials initially provided only vague answers to questions raised in online meetings. Since then, there have been three face-to-face meetings between Canadian and EU officials. But hopes of success have risen and fallen like balloons in a storm. This July, Canadian university officials say, prospects appeared good as their innovation, science and industry minister, François-Philippe Champagne, told a Montreal gathering that he expected an announcement on a Horizon deal as early as this Autumn. But since then, the official silence has been deafening – and worrisome to many Canadian academic leaders.

A spokeswoman for Canada’s innovation ministry said that, while the government “is exploring association in Horizon Europe,” it “is not able to comment on ongoing negotiations.”

According to Commission officials, the UK association to Horizon Europe “will further increase the already very strong attractiveness of the programme”. However, the Commission did not comment on the status of ongoing negotiations with other countries.

Still, the UK news cheered many. “I really hope that with this complex (UK) dossier solved, it will help to speed up the final negotiations and agreement with Canada. Our scientists are eager to get to work with our European colleagues to tackle major challenges facing our planet,” said Rémi Quirion, chief scientific advisor to the Quebec provincial government.

Getting ready for Horizon

As for the details of those talks: according to Yves Joanette, associate vice rector of the University of Montreal, the university world has been told that discussions focus on Canadian membership in so-called Pillar II of Horizon: the core funding for large, sector-specific collaborations on energy, health, digital and other industrially important fields. Off the table at present is fundamental research funding in Pillar I, and small company grants in Pillar III. While universities would like wider access, Pillar II “is a good start,” he says.

At Joanette’s own university, preparation for Horizon membership – when and if it happens – is moving apace. The university has, he says, designated someone to help researchers prepare Horizon grant applications, started looking at specific disciplines for projects, and has begun “sensitising some of our leading researchers” to Horizon opportunities.

“We’re making sure that the day, the minute, the hour we are told we are able to participate, there will be people all ready to support our teams,” he says.

Of course, some University of Montreal researchers already have Horizon experience, mostly as project participants funded directly by Ottawa rather than Brussels. But full membership will expand funding opportunities and strengthen some key university programmes, such as its artificial intelligence research. Among the university’s most famous professors is Yoshua Bengio, a computer scientist and global AI expert. One important AI research challenge, for which European partnership would be welcome, is overcoming a practical obstacle to better AI: the fact that many datasets used by AI systems today are "too messy”, he says.

But despite such eagerness, an internal Canadian problem is the federal government’s ever-tighter research budgets. After all, to join Horizon, Ottawa would have to agree to contribute money to the central EU pot – and it isn’t clear yet where the federal government would find that money. The logic for spending anything on Horizon is that it would speed development and global application of Canadian research – in short, the available money could be spent more efficiently.

Find the money?

But at present the Canadian university world is fighting a rear-guard action against tight federal research budgets. Despite early Trudeau government promises to boost R&D spending consistently, by 2021 Canada ranked second-lowest (above Italy) in the Group of 7 leading western economies for its R&D spending as a percent of gross domestic product: 1.7%, compared to 3.5% in the US and the 2.7% average of all member-states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to OECD statistics.

At the same time, a special advisory committee to the government this year urged a major rethink of how much and how the federal government spends its R&D money. And in a submission last month to the Canadian Parliament, the U15 group warned that Canadian researchers are leaving the country to seek better funding elsewhere. “The federal government has steadily lost focus on science and research,” the group said. “The result has been a hollowing out of Canada’s research ecosystem.”

All this makes the outcome of Ottawa-Brussels talks uncertain. “We’re in a weird policy wasteland,” observers Martha Crago, vice principal for research at McGill University. “This government is being hard-pressed by (opposition) Conservatives, and the election is a few years away – so they are going to want to control government spending. But where?”

And elsewhere…

Other potential Horizon partners have their own issues. In Japan, despite a recent charm offensive by EU officials (including the arrival of the EU’s former research chief as its ambassador), there isn’t yet any government commitment to formal negotiations – in part because of internal disagreement about the costs and benefits.

For instance, some Japanese representatives say there is concern about the fact that, if Tokyo joins the programme, it would have limited influence over what disciplines, and on what terms, Horizon opens its calls for grant proposals. Japan’s own R&D programmes have become more targeted to specific research fields deemed strategically important – and it would want to see Horizon support some of those themes. And some in Tokyo argue they should be focusing on greater research cooperation with Washington, rather than Brussels.

(The US, under Trump, loudly rejected the EU offer for Horizon negotiations – and the current administration hasn’t reversed that.)

Switzerland is still being kept outside Horizon Europe, but in June the government announced a new strategy for stabilising relations with the EU in a flurry of policy areas, including a quick return to Horizon Europe.

As for South Korea, informal discussions have been proceeding quietly, but may now intensify. In a statement for Science|Business, the Korea-EU Research Centre (K-ERC) in Brussels said the UK deal makes association more attractive for South Korea. “The UK deal is a good study case of how negotiations are going and on the thinking of the EU and their interests,” a K-ERC representative said. He said South Korea is now preparing for the first working group meetings with the EU, which are due to start “soon enough”.

Editor’s note: This article was updated September 14 to include late-arriving comment from Canada’s innovation ministry and from The European Commission.

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