How UK and Swiss researchers are coping without association to Horizon Europe

31 Mar 2022 | News

Both countries are still locked out of full participation. Here’s what their academics can still apply for, and the national guarantee schemes designed to keep them in Horizon networks.

The UK and Switzerland are normally stalwarts of the EU’s research and innovation frameworks.

But this time around both remain un-associated to the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe programme, meaning London and Bern have had to work up contingency measures and replacement grants for their researchers to mitigate the damage.

The cause of this freeze-out is simple: higher level politics. Despite a campaign to keep science separate from politics, the Commission has not ratified association with the UK due to wider disputes over the post-Brexit settlement. Swiss association never even got off the ground after Bern last year pulled out of talks to recast its broader relationship with Brussels.

There has been some hope that the invasion of Ukraine would snap all sides out of what are, in the grand scheme of things, arguably relatively petty disputes between friendly neighbours. The UK and Switzerland have lined up alongside the US and EU to sanction Russia.

But there is still no sign of a shift from the Commission to de-link Horizon association from wider political disputes. “We seem to be glued in a situation which moves us a little further away each month from the win-win situation we had for science in Europe, with Switzerland and the UK acting as strong contributors to the EU research programmes,” said Yves Flückiger, president of the swissuniversities umbrella body.

So, barring a breakthrough at the top, here’s how researchers in the UK and Switzerland are navigating their lack of association to Horizon Europe.

Can researchers in the UK and Switzerland still apply for Horizon Europe calls?

In the UK: yes. In Switzerland: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The two countries are in different positions, because the UK is still technically on the road to association, which was agreed in principle back in early 2021, even though it hasn’t yet been ratified. This means that UK academics can still apply as if the country was already associated. The problem comes when they need to sign grant agreements and access money with association still not ratified, which is where the UK’s guarantee should step in (more on that later).

But talks with Switzerland never even got off the ground, meaning the country is not even considered as on the path to association. Swiss researchers are therefore completely excluded from so-called mono-beneficiary grants – those with only one funding recipient. These chiefly include the highly prestigious European Research Council grants, MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships, and European Innovation Council Accelerator grants.

The one exception to this rule are 2021 calls for ERC Starting and Consolidator grants, plus the first round of EIC accelerator grants in 2021.This is because for a brief window of time, Switzerland was considered on track to join Horizon Europe, meaning that Swiss were able to apply as normal for these grants, before the door slammed shut in June 2021.

What about participating in consortia?

Like any country in the world, researchers in the UK and Switzerland can join Horizon consortia, so long as they bring along their own source of funding.

So despite being excluded from association for now, Swiss researchers, for example, can still apply to about two thirds of the programme. Both countries have guarantees set up to cover the costs of joining (see below).

And Swiss and British researchers, as Americans or others outside the normal Horizon zone, can get direct Horizon funding in what the Commission calls exceptional circumstances - for instance, if they have special skills or resources that EU partners need.

But drawbacks remain to not being associated. Swiss partners won’t be able to coordinate the projects, neither will UK entities if the country remains un-associated, except in exceptional circumstances where they are deemed essential by the EU. And the standard consortia set up needs at least three partners from EU countries or associated countries, of which one needs to be an EU member state. So, for example, a consortium from Switzerland, Germany and Austria wouldn’t fulfil the criteria; they’d need one extra EU or associated country.

Confusingly, in Horizon terminology, researchers from countries that aren’t associated, but nonetheless join a consortium are called ‘associated partners’.

What guarantees are there that UK applicants will get any money?

After worries mounted in 2021 that UK association was being held up, leaving academics fearing their applications might be in vain, the UK government in November announced a guarantee scheme to make sure Horizon grant winners got paid regardless of whether association was agreed in time. This backstop was initially quite narrow, only covering a handful of calls, but earlier this month, it was extended to cover many more grants where the final grant signature is due this year.

That means grant winners will be given money by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s main funding agency, to join consortia. Meanwhile, UK winners of mono-beneficiary grants, like those from the ERC, will still have to give them up unless they move to the EU or an associated country like Israel or Turkey. But UKRI says it will give these winners an equivalent grant that should replicate this lost funding.

Are there any downsides to the UK’s guarantee?

On the whole, the guarantee scheme has been welcomed by universities. The hope is that UK researchers will not notice that much difference, apart from a bit of paperwork, from being in Horizon Europe proper.

But there are a few drawbacks to the UK replacement. Mirroring UKRI rules, researchers will be paid three months in arrears, unlike the EU, which normally pays in advance. And it may take 30 to 90 days for UKRI to process grants.

“So there might be […] potentially cashflow problems at the beginning,” said Frances Wood, regional director for the UK government’s Science and Innovation Network covering Europe, Russia, Turkey and Israel, at a 30 March online information session on UK participation.

UK researchers can lodge a request for money with UKRI only after they have a completed grant agreement with the EU, so this may cause initial gaps in funding.

“It might involve delaying the start of the project, it may involve rearranging when the UK partner begins in the project,” said Andrew Macdonell, a UKRI senior policy manager at the session. “And I acknowledge that that's not ideal”. But any reporting requirements or financial checks should be equivalent or “less demanding” than under the EU, he said.

The other downside for ERC winners is that if they do take the UK’s alternative, they will only be able to move around in the UK, not the whole EU, when carrying out their research. The UK’s grant could arguably also be less prestigious than the glittering jewel of an ERC grant, but researchers can still say they won the grant through the ERC’s rigorous selection process, even if the money ultimately was paid out by UKRI.  

Has the UK’s guarantee convinced everyone?

At the recent briefing on UK Horizon Europe participation, one audience member raised concerns about UK partners being booted out of consortia over fears the country’s guarantee was not “sufficiently robust”.

“This is also something that a lot of my teams across Europe are also hearing,” said Wood. “So my teams are speaking to individual governments and research funders to essentially explain the UK position or status.” To be fair to the UK, it has only in recent weeks significantly extended its guarantee, and that message may take a while to filter though.

“People will be nervous until the first money starts to flow,” said Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of 24 UK large research universities. “I think that’s an inevitable nervousnessbut the guarantee is solid, and we are encouraging applications as normal."

What’s more, it’s not certain that the UKRI guarantee will cover every possible Horizon call. The latest guarantee extension covers dozens of calls, but the UK is still looking at whether to include public-private partnerships and joint undertakings, UKRI confirmed.

Bradshaw also stressed that if non-association drags on, the UK would need to extend its guarantee even further to cover calls coming out after the summer, to assure researchers that it is still worth applying.

What about the Swiss guarantee?

Like the UK, the Swiss State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation has guaranteed automatic funding for any researchers who want to join consortia until the end of the year. On the whole, the rules on funding and reporting should be similar to that applied by the EU, although there are a few specifically Swiss strings attached, like maximum salary rates for participating companies and commercial labs.

For mono-beneficiary grants like the ERC, things are more complicated, because Swiss academics are prevented from applying. Unable to use the EU’s assessment mechanisms, Switzerland has undertaken the tricky task of setting up its own.

So the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Innosuisse innovation agency have been charged with setting up “transitional” replacement grants, which are supposed to be as like the ERC as possible, but will have different deadlines and assessment panels. This year there is a Swiss Starting and Consolidator grant, and last year there was a call for a Swiss Advanced grant, mirroring the ERC.

In 2021 the country launched Swiss Postdoctoral Fellowships to make up for the loss of the MSCA equivalent.

Replacing the EIC is complicated: accelerator grants are off limits to the Swiss, and are being replicated by a grant called the Swiss Accelerator, which will open on 1 April. But Swiss entities can still take part in consortia applying for Pathfinder and Transition grants.

As for Switzerland-based winners of ERC grants last year – who applied in the brief window when it was possible – they, like UK winners, will also have to give them up, unless they move to the EU or an associated country. But also like the UK, Switzerland is offering them an equivalent replacement grant that allows them to stay at their Swiss institution, but is not portable across the EU.

Are certain types of research field off limits?

So long as they remain non-associated, researchers based in the UK and Switzerland will not be allowed to join certain sensitive Horizon calls like those focused on quantum technology and space projects, because these areas are seen as critical to the EU’s security and technological autonomy. However, the Horizon 2021-22 work programme does contain some exceptions allowing the UK to join quantum projects, so long as it gives EU scientists reciprocal access to its own programmes. 

Switzerland is currently examining alternative measures to compensate for this kind of exclusion. New support for these areas could be included in any UK alternative to Horizon (see below).

If researchers win an ERC grant in the EU, can they then take it with them if they want to continue this work in the UK or Switzerland?

Because they are moving to a non-associated country, ERC winners would lose their grant. But Switzerland has said that it would match this funding for incoming ERC winners through a ‘transfer grant’. However, the hassle of switching grants mid-project could pose a bureaucratic obstacle. The UK is still working out its policy in this area, UKRI confirmed.

Long-term replacements

It’s important to remember that all these measures are only stopgaps while Bern and London wait and see if they can associate to Horizon Europe.

Both countries are working up alternatives to Horizon, even as they stress association remains their priority.

Switzerland is looking at replacement measures if association is impossible in the long run, which will kick in in 2024 at the earliest.

As for the UK, the science minister George Freeman has repeatedly warned Brussels that the UK is working on a “Plan B”, even though its priority remains associating to Horizon Europe. “We cannot wait forever,” he said in a letter earlier this month.

There are so far few public details of what this would involve, but Freeman has said it would aim to deliver “many of the benefits of Horizon association, with additional benefits, through wider global participation, and even stronger industry and SME engagement.”

Even under Plan B, however, there will be an “package that includes third country participation in Horizon Europe,” said Wood. “We can give assurances that whatever happens, there will be a mechanism for UK researchers and innovators to collaborate with their European partners.”

This article has been updated to include more information about direct EU funding for UK and Swiss researchers in exceptional circumstances, and exceptions allowing the UK to join quantum projects.

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