UK forges own global research network as EU starts South Korea and New Zealand Horizon talks

15 Feb 2022 | News

With association still uncertain, the UK is on a bilateral R&D collaboration signing spree. Meanwhile, countries outside Europe are invited to the Horizon Europe table

The UK has launched a research and development competition with South Korea, the latest in a string of recently announced collaborations with countries outside the EU.

It comes as Brussels announces that it has entered official Horizon Europe association talks with South Korea and New Zealand.

The UK deal with South Korea will see consortia of businesses in the two countries compete for industrial research funding to tackle areas like advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, batteries, and hydrogen.  

The partnership follows a tie-up with Switzerland last week, and a co-innovation programme with Singapore agreed in December.

The collaborations with South Korea and Singapore are the first bilateral R&D competitions to be run by the UK innovation agency, Innovate UK with both countries.

The agreements make real the concerns of the recently launched Stick to Science campaign that failing to allow the UK and Switzerland to associate to Horizon Europe risks fragmenting the scientific community in Europe.

This latest deal with South Korea is “part of a longer-term, more strategic approach” said David Golding, Innovate UK’s interim deputy director.

Along with the Singapore announcement, it will allow “the best of British innovators to team up with their counterparts in two of Asia’s most technologically-advanced nations.”

So far, the funding involved is relatively small scale. The South Korea competition will offer companies a share of “up to £2 million”.

The UK is also set to launch calls with Singapore for innovation projects in areas like cybersecurity, health and life sciences, and agri-food technology. They should be made public in “early 2022”, but there is no word yet on how much they will be worth.

Meanwhile, the UK and Switzerland are not launching new joint calls, but instead the country’s two main funding agencies have signed a joint statement saying they will reduce friction when researchers collaborate. Both agencies are now offering grants to enable holders of existing grants in the fields of synthetic biology, languages, materials, and the interface between life and physical sciences, to travel between the UK and Switzerland, visit their respective institutions and exchange knowledge, skills and best practice.

In an announcement on 10 February, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) said the aim is to “reduce many of the barriers researchers encounter and enable more cooperation on the two countries’ shared research priorities.”

UKRI has set up a £1 million fund, with researchers eligible to apply for individual grants of £25,000. Meanwhile, SNSF is offering up to CHF35,500 (€34,771) for visits to UK institutions of up to 12 months.

For the UK, this flurry of activity comes as future participation in Horizon Europe remains uncertain. Association has still not been signed off, after the European Commission suggested it was linked to wider political disputes like the Northern Ireland Protocol and issues of “trust”.

While the UK’s priority remains association, it has started working on a ‘Plan B’ as a full alternative to Horizon Europe that would involve a wider net of partners around the world.

The EU is “hurting itself” by excluding neighbouring countries, Antoine Petit, chair and chief executive of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), told the Science|Business Annual Conference last week. “It’s a punishment for all of us, it’s a punishment for Europe,” he said.

The UK and Switzerland would between them contribute €17.2 billion to the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe budget, according to Stick to Science.

Meanwhile, Brussels has been busy attempting to widen its own net of research partners.

On 14 February, Yong Hongtaek, South Korea’s vice minister of science and ICT, announced that the country would begin official talks with the EU on joining Horizon as an associated country.

This follows an announcement last week that New Zealand is to do the same. 

“The EU and New Zealand are natural partners with joint research objectives in areas like transitioning to zero carbon and reducing emissions from agriculture, responding to COVID-19 and preparing for pandemics, and developing emerging technology in areas like space,” said Iain Cossar, a science official at the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The ministry said in its statement that “association will provide a great opportunity to increase scientific collaboration”.

These announcements mark a positive turn for Brussels’ otherwise disappointing attempt to entice democratic, non-European science powers like Canada, Japan and Australia to associate to Horizon Europe. The Commission has invited Canada to join, but talks have still not advanced past an exploratory stage.  

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