Researchers go unpaid as delay to UK association to Horizon Europe starts to bite

21 Oct 2021 | News

Science|Business has spoken to five UK teams that have still not been paid this year for work on European Institute of Innovation and Technology projects. They face making redundancies and could be forced to pull out of consortia

UK-based researchers and companies have not received payments for Horizon Europe projects because the political row between London and Brussels has blocked the UK’s formal association to the research programme.

Some have had to scale back their involvement in critical health research, risk having to make redundancies, or even pull out altogether if they are not paid soon. A total of 69 UK teams are working with no guarantee they will be paid for this year.

The UK says it is ready to sign off Horizon Europe association, which should release the money. But last week EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel confirmed to Science|Business that association will be delayed until “transversal” political issues, most notably the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, are resolved.

“It is a major problem,” said Anthony Gordon, professor of anaesthesia and critical care at Imperial College London, which is part of a consortium developing a new diagnostic test to check patients’ immune systems.

“We have continued at risk of not being paid as we believe the work is vital to do,” Gordon said. “If we don’t get paid then we will have to stop work and the work to date on the project will be wasted and ultimately patients will suffer.”

"Grant agreements and access to Horizon Europe funding by virtue of association will only be possible once the respective association agreement has become applicable," said a Commission spokesman when asked about the funding delays. 

All the affected projects are funded by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT), which backs consortia of universities, research institutes and companies to create new products and services.

EIT funding comes from Horizon Europe and with the UK still not formally associated to the research programme, money cannot be released to UK partners.

Although UK researchers can apply for Horizon Europe grants, unless the UK is associated by the time grant agreements come to be signed, they may have to find their own source of funding.

For normal research grant calls, which started to open for proposals in June, this crunch point starts to bite in spring next year, but for the EIT non-association is already blocking the disbursement of funds to UK partners.

The delay is causing “significant problems and uncertainties” for a consortium working to improve the accuracy and reduce the side effects of cancer radiotherapy, said project partner Florian Wiesinger, principal scientist at GE Healthcare and a visiting professor at King’s College London. This makes planning “very difficult” and has forced the group to “significantly” scale back efforts at Newcastle University, where the clinical research is taking place.

“It feels like we are victims of political negotiations and tactics,” Wiesinger said.

One of the other partners on the project has had to make a “considerable sacrifice” stepping in with a “Brexit rescue package” so that Newcastle University can make a “meaningful, although reduced” contribution this year, said Ross Maxwell, a cancer imaging specialist at the university.

“We have been working under the assumption that the UK government will sign up to Horizon Europe before 31 December so that the original funding will be available,” he said. “It is now quite difficult for me to be optimistic about this.”

Working for nothing

Also impacted is UNEXUP, a three year project which began in January 2020, with the aim of commercialising underwater robots developed in an earlier EIT project. The robots are designed to prospect for minerals in the tens of thousands of flooded mines that dot Europe. With Europe almost completely dependent on the import of mineral raw materials, the pressure to reopen abandoned mines is growing.

But the project’s UK-based partner, Resources Computing International, which develops software and assists with robot dives, still has not received payments for 2021. Stephen Henley, owner of the company, said that as a result his researchers had not been paid, and the company has had to cover more than €10,000 of travel and equipment expenses itself.

“We have done nine months’ work for nothing, and our researchers’ patience is rapidly running out,” Henley said. The company is currently looking at potential bridging finance from a Portuguese research funding agency, but if a solution is not found, “I would have to tell all my team to stop working immediately,” he said.

If Henley’s team has to quit the consortium, this could scupper two robot dives planned for Cornish tin mines in 2022.

“It would be difficult to replace their knowledge, and almost impossible to complete the project without delays,” said project coordinator Norbert Zajzon, a geologist at the University of Miskolc in Hungary.

Another UK-based participant in an EIT digital project, who wanted to remain anonymous, said her company is owed the best part of £500,000. “We’re basically doing the project for free,” she told Science|Business.

But the company cannot pull out because this would wreck its relationships with its partners. “We’re between a rock and a hard place,” she said.

The unpaid work means that company will at the very least have to make redundancies, and in extremis, will go bankrupt, she warned. The funding delay has already caused delays to the project because “we don’t have the energy and resources” to continue as normal, she said.

Colin Collino, founder of UK-based Gravity Mining, which provides equipment to extract minerals, said his company had received no money this year for its part in a project to remove valuable minerals from the waste stream generated in aluminium production.

The company is around €100,000 short, he said, despite supplying “all our hours and budget.”

Gravity Mining has not yet pencilled in a crunch point at which it will have to pull out if it remains unpaid. “But I suppose there will come a point where we need to make a decision,” said Collino. Although the company has other sources of income, the whole episode has put the company off the “flaky” world of academic grants, he said.

One EIT-backed energy company whose chief executive spoke to Science|Business on condition of anonymity said it had managed to dodge payment problems by moving from the UK to Luxembourg.

Several of the teams that spoke to Science|Business said they had been told that unless the money is paid out in 2021, it may be gone forever, with little prospect of retroactive payment.

An EIT spokeswoman said, “If there is no association agreement at the time of signature of the grant agreements, an amendment to the grant agreement could be possible when the association agreements enter into force to change the status of the entities and the available budget, depending however on the provisions of the association agreements concerned.”

You’re not alone

The EIT points out UK researchers are not alone in this predicament. Partners from other non-EU countries, like Turkey, that have also agreed in principle to associate, but are not formally signed yet, also sign up knowing that technically funding might not be forthcoming.

“Entities from non-associated countries (i.e. with association agreement not yet in place) are not eligible for EIT funding,” the spokeswoman said. “This has been communicated to EIT KICs and through them to their partners throughout the process.”

“The EIT has followed the exact same approach for all third country entities,” she said. In total, 69 UK entities are caught up in the association limbo.

However, UK researchers say their position is much more insecure, because unlike Turkish scientists, for example, there is wider political uncertainty over if and when association will actually be signed off.

UK researchers are still being officially encouraged to apply to Horizon Europe, and earlier this month a special grant of £5,000 was set up by the research agency UK Research and Innovation, to help them submit applications.

But there are no signs of an emergency fund to rescue the EIT projects. Asked if the UK government would step in if necessary, a spokesman for the Department for Business said it is “our priority is to support the UK’s research and development sector and we will continue to do this in all future scenarios.”

“The UK stands ready to formalise our association to Horizon Europe at the earliest opportunity, but disappointingly there have been persistent delays from the EU,” he said.

When the prospect of no-deal Brexit was on the cards in 2019, the UK guaranteed that it would fund all successful competitive bids to Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe's predecessor, submitted by UK researchers before the country left the bloc. 

Offering a glimmer of hope, the EIT spokeswoman said that in “exceptional cases” the granting authority “may approve eligibility on an exceptional basis when the beneficiary can demonstrate that the participation of the third country entity is essential to achieve the objectives of the action.”

Meanwhile, the wider political situation causing the hold-up remains unresolved, with the EU and UK still to reach any kind of agreement over the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

The Commission has shown no sign of backing away from its policy of holding up association until this broader political row is settled.

In the past week, France’s Europe secretary Clément Beaune has said the country will take retaliatory measures against the UK’s research sector, financial sector and electricity supply unless it grants more fishing licenses.

In the UK, the new science minister George Freeman has reiterated his desire to join Horizon Europe. “Our application is in for long-awaited sign-off with UK industry/university/R&D projects,” he tweeted on 15 October. But he said, “If the EU decides Northern Ireland Protocol politics stops UK joining Horizon Europe, we have a bold Plan B.” There were no details of what that might look like, but the UK was due to pay £1 billion to be associated to Horizon Europe in 2021, and £14 billion over the seven years the research programme will run.

Switzerland has already started scoping out its Plan B to soften the blow of Horizon Europe exclusion. Like the UK, association is on ice because of a wider breakdown in talks over a new framework of relations between Brussels and Bern.

On 20 October the Federal Council instructed the country’s research department to examine “possible complementary and replacement measures” that will kick in “if no association is possible in the long term”.

However, the results of this scoping exercise will only be available in 2022 and 2023, and the Swiss government’s first priority remains association to Horizon Europe. But for successful bids for 2021 calls, Swiss project partners will be paid directly by Swiss government. 

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