Research associations plead for eleventh hour deal on UK’s Horizon Europe association

04 Nov 2021 | News

Great and the good of science are telling the Commission to hurry up and reach a deal on UK participation in the €95.5B programme, saying the uncertainty is endangering current and future collaborations

Research and university associations from across Europe have sent a letter to the European Commission calling for the UK to become associated in Horizon Europe without delay.

In the letter, bodies representing over 1,000 universities, 38 research institutes and funding agencies, 33 rectors’ conferences, and 120 regional organisations, say the lack of a clear timeline for finalising UK association is increasingly damaging research ties.

“The UK’s association to Horizon Europe must be implemented now,” the letter says. “This lingering uncertainty risks endangering current and future plans for collaboration.”

The post-Brexit trade agreement the EU and UK signed in December 2020 included provisions for the UK to be associated in Horizon Europe and the Commission assured researchers UK partners need not wait for the formal approval of the association agreement and could go ahead and apply for the first calls.

Research organisations are annoyed that universities, businesses and research institutions have been working with UK partners on project proposals for the past 10 months, assuming the UK would soon be a full associated member in Horizon Europe, but the Commission is delaying a decision on the UK’s participation in the €95.5 billion programme.

“[…] the absence of a clear timeline for finalising UK association is now causing increasing concern and uncertainty which risks endangering current and future plans for collaboration,” the letter says.

UK researchers can apply for Horizon Europe grants, but may need to find their own sources of funding if the UK association agreement is not in place by the time the research grants are signed.

Researchers involved in projects funded through the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT) have not been paid because of the association delay, and as things stand, researchers who applied for Horizon Europe grants in June will be faced with the same problem in the first half of 2022.

In its 2021 spending review, the UK government set aside £6.9 billion for its contribution to Horizon Europe until 2025, but faced with the delay and uncertainty, UK science minister George Freeman has said an alternative plan will be drawn up on how the money will be spent.

Unacceptable delay

“Notwithstanding current arguments in other areas of UK-EU relations, the question of science collaboration is not a zero-sum game,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary general of universities association, The Guild. “If UK association to Horizon Europe is not realised, the capacity of science and innovation in the UK and in the EU are both weakened,” added Palmowski.

The secretary general of the League of Research-Intensive Universities, Kurt Deketelaere said UK and EU universities have a long history of cooperation through EU’s research framework programmes, and a called for a swift conclusion of the association talks. “A further delay simply for political reasons is unacceptable,” said Deketelaere.

“We have no time to lose,” said Jan Wöpking, the secretary-general of U15, an association of Germany’s leading research universities. “The UK’s association process should be finalised as soon as possible.”

In an interview with Science|Business last month, EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel confirmed UK association is being held up until Brussels and London will reach an agreement on the future of the Northern Ireland protocol, one of the most contentious chapters in the EU-UK trade agreement.

The protocol, keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market after Brexit, is currently under the oversight of the European Court of Justice, but the UK government wants a system of independent governance. Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič put forward a plan for easing checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that stopped short of removing the court’s oversight.

A Commission spokeswoman told Science|Business, “The UK’s association to Horizon Europe and other EU programmes will be finalised in due course.” The Commission recognises “the mutual benefit in cooperation in research, science and innovation, nuclear research and space,” the spokeswoman said.

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