UK weighs global science and technology priorities after Horizon Europe association

14 Dec 2023 | News

With EU relations patched up, UK researchers and policymakers are planning the next moves. There are no firm plans for AI legislation, but an international collaboration fund set up during the wilderness years will continue, and there will be a focus on South American links

UK’s science and technology secretary Michelle Donelan speaking at the UK's AI Safety Summit in November this year. Photo: Marcel Grabowski / UK Government

When 2024 comes around, researchers in the UK will be able to apply to Horizon Europe on equal terms with their EU counterparts, after association to the research and innovation programme brings an end to three years of limbo.

But the question is: what now?

For MPs who grilled the UK’s science and technology secretary Michelle Donelan this week, the most pressing priority is the country’s response to the vertiginous advance of artificial intelligence.

Last week, the EU threw down the gauntlet by reaching a provisional agreement on its AI Act, arguably putting Brussels in the driving seat to shape governance around the technology.

But despite earlier this year indicating it would introduce AI legislation, there has been no sign of it, meaning the UK will likely be without AI specific laws until at least 2025, MPs on the House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee worry, missing the boat to set global standards.

“We will have to legislate, yes,” said Donelan when pressed by the committee on AI legislation at a hearing on 13 December. “But it's about timing […] rushing to legislate won't help anybody.”

The UK’s AI approach matters because the country is well ahead of any other European nation on measures of private investment, newly funded companies, and the number of leading machine learning systems it hosts, according to a report earlier this year from Stanford University.

It hosts Deepmind, one of the world’s leading AI labs, which developed the recently released Gemini system, touted as even more powerful than OpenAI’s GPT-4 – although Deepmind is ultimately owned by Google and not an independent UK company.

The UK can be seen as trying to ride two horses at the same time when it comes to AI, on the one hand promising a pro-innovation light-touch regime, and yet on the other organising the world’s first AI safety summit where it herded countries to acknowledge the potentially “catastrophic” risk the technology poses.

Donelan embodied this split-brain attitude before MPs, simultaneously trumpeting the achievements of the safety summit while also throwing shade on the EU’s “stifling” AI Act.

“If we look at the EU AI act, for instance, there are deep concerns amongst some of their member states that that will actually stifle innovation,” she said.

Instead, the UK’s plan for now is to give existing regulators a responsibility to shepherd AI, sector by sector, rather than setting up a dedicated oversight body.

“It takes a long time to set up a regulator. We've got this existing fleet of regulators out there and what we need to do is make sure they've got enough support,” Donelan told MPs.

While the EU AI Act will take years to full take force, the UK, through its safety summit, has tangible results already, for example, getting the world’s leading AI firms to publish their safety policies, Donelan noted. “So I don't think we're going to be left behind.”

The elephant in the room, of course, is that Donelan’s Conservatives are likely to lose power in an election next year or early 2025, if the current polls are correct.

Peter Kyle, shadow technology minister for the opposition Labour party, has promised more rapid regulatory action, and warned the UK is falling behind the EU and US when it comes to governing AI.

International science partnerships fund

When the UK was locked out of Horizon Europe, the then science minister George Freeman criss-crossed the globe, trying to build more research partnerships with non-EU countries like Israel and Switzerland – perhaps as a way of telling Brussels that London had other options if it refused to play ball. 

The most tangible result was the International Science Partnerships Fund, launched by Freeman in Japan with £119 million to back joint projects both with EU and non-EU countries. £5 million has gone into joint work with India on farmed animal health, for example.

Even though Horizon association is now agreed, the fund will continue. In November, a further £218 million was announced for work with low- and middle-income countries. That’s still less than a tenth of the €2.43 billion the UK is expected to pay into Horizon per year.

Nonetheless, the fund should be a “stable part of our funding environment from here on,” said Christopher Smith, the international champion of the country’s main research funding agency, UK Research and Innovation, speaking at an online conference on 14 December on the future of the UK’s global science links, hosted by the Westminster Higher Education Forum.

South American links

Smith also said there could be a renewed focus on links with South America. Partnerships with the continent had become “a little underweighted,” he said.

In previous years, the UK has undergone an “Indo-Pacific tilt” and it had become harder to work with Brazil. As a result, “we perhaps rather took our general foot a little bit off the gas of some of our South American partnerships, and we may need to think about that,” Smith said.

In addition, Smith talked up better research links with the global south.

But the UK may have some work to do rebuilding trust among partners in poorer countries after a 2021 decision to impose big cuts to research projects with the developing world as part of a broader decision to slash overseas aid.

When funding isn’t consistent, “relationships can fade away very quickly,” said Louise Heery, head of global research development at Leeds University, speaking at the same event.

Smith confirmed UKRI will continue to roll out a scheme allowing scientists outside the UK to be co-investigators on funded projects, although this would be introduced “over a slower rather than a faster timetable.”

Visa blockages

But just as the UK trumpets its international ambitions, rising visa fees for researchers and students coming into the UK threaten to scupper its global links.

Next year, work visa fees will rise by 15% and student fees by 35%. A settlement visa, for example, will cost £2,900. Immigrants must also pay a surcharge to fund the health service, which will rise 66% to £1,035. A 2021 Royal Society report found that skilled worker visas were considerably more expensive than other comparable countries like Germany, France, Canada and the US.

It was a “necessity” to have “free movement of people where scientific research is concerned,” said Charles Hay, a member of the UK’s House of Lords, speaking at the session. But this was being undermined by the Home Office, which sets immigration and visa policy, which he called a “problem child ministry”.

“We know that some aspects of our visa system make talent exchange more complex,” said Shane McHugh, head of international partnerships at the Royal Academy of Engineering.

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