In a blow to researchers, academics and scientists based in the UK, the EU recently revealed that it would be scrapping 115 grants that form part of its €95.5 billion Horizon Europe programme, as Brexit tensions between the EU and the UK continue to grow. However, today the UK published counter plans to plug the funding gap in what is likely to be seen as an attempt to stop some of the UK’s smartest people from relocating to the EU.
The British Government has been trying to position the UK as a ‘science and innovation superpower’ and losing ties with Europe’s largest research and innovation programme is a blow to its ambitions. Some researchers have explicitly said that they are planning to move to EU institutions as a result.
In December 2020 the UK had initially negotiated to remain part of Horizon and committed to investing in the programme. However, with the UK seeking to amend the Northern Ireland protocol, without using the official dispute-resolution system that was agreed as part of the Brexit process, legal action has been triggered by the EU and barriers on both sides are beginning to go up.
With this in mind, the UK has this week announced a new package of ‘transitional measures’ that it hopes will ensure stability and continuity of funding for researchers and businesses, if the UK is not able to associate to Horizon Europe in the coming weeks and months.
The UK is (predictably) positioning this as the EU’s doing and this week said that the funding being pulled is a result of the “EU’s continued delays”, whilst failing to mention the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Commenting on the transitional plans announced this week, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwai Kwarteng, said:
The UK Government has always been clear that our departure from the European Union (EU) does not mean leaving the flagship Horizon, Copernicus, Euratom Research & Training and Fusion for Energy programmes. The UK has always been a major financial and intellectual contributor to these programmes and seeks to continue that partnership.
Unfortunately, the EU has still not formalised our association to these programmes as agreed under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), linking them to resolution of wider political discussions. I am concerned that the continued delays are causing intolerable uncertainty for our research and business community. To help minimise the uncertainty and signal our good faith commitment to association, the government set out our Horizon Europe guarantee in November 2021, and then extended it to the end of this year.
Over the last few months, we have made clear that the UK is more committed than ever to strong research collaboration with our European partners, and that close scientific collaboration is key to our wider shared security. Despite widespread support for UK association across member states and the EU’s research community, association continues to look unlikely while the EU links it to wider political issues.
The British Government has said that it is “prepared for all scenarios” and that it is developing a long-term ‘Horizon alternative’, which it says will draw on the best features of Horizon and “add some improvements”. However, if the UK is not able to associate to Horizon Europe in the short term, the focus will be on the transitional measures announced this week.
The Government’s position remains to associate to all 4 EU programmes. Given the ongoing delays, however, whatever happens we need to ensure that we are making the most of the UK’s science and innovation strengths, and so we need to prepare for an alternative future. In developing these programmes, we will need the support of the whole UK R&D community. This is a vital moment for UK research in which I and the Government are determined we will strengthen, deepen, and widen our commitment to international research.
The British Government has said that its preference is for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe, but that given the uncertainty, it will be introducing these transitional arrangements in an attempt to provide some certainty to the UK-based research and innovation community. These include:
The Horizon Europe Guarantee – the government has said that if it is unable to associate, it will fund applications that are submitted to a Horizon Europe funding call with an EU final call deadline date before the point of non-association, and are successful in the EU evaluation and meet the eligibility criteria of the guarantee. This includes those where grant signature dates fall beyond the end of 2022.
Funding for successful, in-flight applications - the government will also support UK entities with eligible in-flight applications to Horizon Europe (to calls that have closed or are open at the point of non-association, where such applications are not being evaluated by the EC), by assessing such applications domestically, to ensure the best get funded should the EC no longer carry out the evaluation
Uplifts to existing talent programmes - the government has said that it will increase funding for its ‘best existing talent schemes’ covering a broad range of disciplines via National Academies and UKRI. This will be followed by the creation of a new UK fellowship and award programme, designed to retain and attract top talent in the UK.
Uplifts to innovation support – the government will increase funding for a range of its innovation schemes targeted at small and medium sized businesses (SMEs), delivered by Innovate UK, and go on to create new mechanisms.
The Talent and Research Stabilisation Fund – the government will use formula funding to support a range of eligible UK institutions who have been most affected by the loss of Horizon Europe talent funding. The fund will enable eligible research organizations and universities to support talent retention and target funding vulnerabilities at a local level
Third Country Participation - around two thirds of Horizon Europe calls are open to UK researchers and companies as Third Country applicants, as part of consortia with at least three other applicants from EU member states or associated countries, provided they bring their own funding. As this is a priority for businesses and researchers, the government will fund all eligible UK entities participating in any such consortia signing grant agreements before 31 March 2025.
It will no doubt be welcome that the government has announced some measures to plug gaps for researchers and academics in the UK, who have been in limbo for months not knowing if their funding will be pulled. Whether or not this will be enough to convince some researchers to stay in the UK, remains to be seen. Equally, there should still be an ambition to associate to Horizon, despite this announcement, as funding isn’t everything. Collaboration and access to institutions across the EU is vital for many of these researchers and Horizon enables much of that. The UK’s plan to create a programme that rivals Horizon - on its own - seems ambitious in the extreme and shouldn’t be the end goal here.