UK universities rush to improve Horizon Europe participation after association deal

28 Sep 2023 | News

Roadshows, seed funds, and high-level visits are planned to get EU and UK partners collaborating once again. But UK universities also want an explicit guarantee the country will join the successor programme, FP10

University College London has a weekly online session for researchers with questions about Horizon Europe. Photo: ForgottenGenius / Flickr

British universities are racing to recover from their long absence from EU research programmes after the UK was welcomed as an associate member of Horizon Europe earlier this month – but they are already worried about whether London will choose to join the programme’s successor, FP10.

Two and a half years of exclusion from the programme, caused by wider political fights between London and Brussels, have halved UK participation in the collaborative second pillar of Horizon Europe, and now UK universities are scrambling to get back up to speed.

Although insisting they never stopped engaging with EU researchers – a home-grown guarantee scheme allowed British academic teams to join Horizon consortia with domestic money – UK universities admit their academics missed the boat on some big calls.

“We had a few examples of where our researchers were not in consortia, that they probably would have been, said Mary Ryan, vice provost for research and enterprise at Imperial College London. “But a lot of those collaborations are still happening, even if they’re outside of the funded consortium programme.”

Brexit and its aftermath “has left us with a pretty poor legacy on trust and confidence, particularly with industrial collaborations,” said Elena Gaura, a senior research leader at Coventry University. “I found it very difficult to build consortia, either because people were scared [of including the UK] or because the [UK] guarantee came too late.”

Established collaborations between senior UK and EU researchers are relatively easy to fire back up, or never went away in the first place, Ryan said. The bigger risk is to younger academics who have so far missed out on the ability to strike up European partnerships because of the UK’s long exclusion.

“We've now got a community of early career researchers who have started their academic career outside of those networks,” said Ryan.

New grants

To help them integrate into EU networks, Imperial has relaunched a European Partners Fund – which gives out small grants of £5,000-10,000 – for its early career researchers to fund exchange visits or build a team. “It’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s flexible and enabling,” Ryan said.

Across the UK, universities are going on an information blitz, using roadshows, meetings and webinars to tell researchers in the UK and EU how they can get involved.

For the past year and a half, University College London has been running a weekly online drop-in session for researchers with questions about the framework programme. Even now the UK is set to associate from 1 January 2024, “we’ll keep that going,” said Kimberly Cornfield, head of European research and innovation at UCL.

UCL has no fewer than 16 employees working on Horizon Europe grants for its researchers, and this team was not downsized even when the UK was not part of the programme. This has allowed the university to keep its relationships going with grant offices in EU universities, said Cornfield.

Post-Brexit partnerships

Both Coventry and Imperial struck up special relationships with EU countries and research institutions after the 2016 vote to leave the EU, and the hope is that this will allow collaboration to come quickly roaring back.

After Brexit torpedoed the number of EU students – largely from eastern Europe – coming to study at Coventry, the university decided to open a campus offering courses in English in Wrocław, Poland.

The Wrocław campus, while a UK entity, has an associated Polish research institute that is itself allowed to participate in Horizon as an EU partner, said Richard Dashwood, Coventry’s deputy vice-chancellor for research. Coventry also has an office in Brussels too.

“So we’ve got boots on the ground, so to speak,” said Dashwood. Coventry management travelled out to Wrocław earlier this year. “We're very lucky in the fact that we do have plenty of people in Europe that are actually acting on our behalf, keeping us involved,” he said.

This is particularly crucial for Coventry, which gets about a third of its research funding from European sources. Dashwood thinks that EU funding is a “lot more unbiased” than UK sources, and avoids the kind of “academic snobbery” that in his view discriminates against more modern universities like Coventry.

Imperial struck two big European partnerships in 2018, with France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and the Technical University of Munich (TUM). TUM’s leadership will visit Imperial next month, and CNRS representatives will arrive in London next April. “We have these kinds of strong events that we do regardless, because we understand that the critical importance of some of those European partnerships,” said Ryan.

Framework programme 10 jitters

For all the celebration over the UK’s long-awaited association to Horizon Europe, there’s a bit of nervousness over whether domestic politics could make association to the successor framework programme 10, an equally tortuous ordeal.

“What worries me […] is the next programme,” said Dashwood. He fears uncertainty over this could once again hit trust among EU research partners.

“I would put money that the UK would be looking to come out of [FP10],” he said. “It depends who gets in, in the next election”.

So far, neither the ruling Conservative party or opposition Labour have explicitly made clear their policy on joining FP10, although given that Labour campaigned hard for Horizon Europe association, it would a major about-face to back out of its successor. An election is set for next year, or early 2025, with Labour well ahead in the opinion polls.

But Dashwood fears it could still become a political football. “Europe is so toxic still,” he said. “Politicians just are scared of being a standard bearer for anything that is related to Europe.”

Ryan is not as pessimistic, but would still like a UK public commitment to join FP10. While it has been “implicit” that the UK will join, “it will be helpful for it to be explicit,” she said.

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