Horizon: UK should not spend ‘sizeable’ funds replicating EU research programme, report says

The independent government report suggested a domestic alternative to the European Research Council and said two-year stabilising funds would be needed

The UK should not attempt to replicate research programmes “line by line” if the country does not maintain membership of Horizon Europe, an independent government report has said.

In the report commissioned by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Sir Adrian Smith, former vice-chancellor of the University of London, and Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at University College London, considered options for the UK if it does not participate in the seven-year EU scientific research initiative after Brexit.

The existing programme, of which the UK has been a part, will run until 2020.

Not associating with Horizon “may well have diplomatic and economic implications beyond research and innovation”, the authors noted.

Ministers have maintained that the UK would like to be a part of the programme, but participation is not guaranteed. Chris Skidmore, universities minister, welcomed the report and said it would “inform our thinking”.


Read more: New universities minister Chris Skidmore: ‘UK will continue to be world leader in research post-Brexit’


Uncertainty has prompted concerns from academics, whose research depends on this stream of income. The report said, “abrupt and unmitigated change” would “destabilise” and “undermine the attractiveness” of the research sector.

Abrupt and unmitigated change to the level of access to EU programmes is likely to destabilise some of the research capability of the UK
– Sir Adrian Smith and Graeme Reid

Despite this warning, the authors said it was “unlikely that government would support proposals [for] sizeable levels of public spending on activities that replicate, line by line” the EU programme. The UK receives more from Horizon than it contributes.

The report recommended the government “protect and stabilise” the sector by offering a funding guarantee of around £1.5bn per annum for up to two years and securing access to databases and facilities. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is “perceived” to prioritise mission-orientated and challenge-led programmes and basic research might lose out without Horizon funds, the authors added.

New “agile” and “spontaneous” funds would be needed to ensure UK research could keep pace internationally. Reforming UKRI was cautioned; the authors said its infancy and present size meant it would not be capable of handling such changes.

The report instead recommended four domestic alternatives to the European Research Council; a new independent council within UKRI was the author’s preferred model but a new standalone body, multi-council oversight of funds, or a “cross-cutting” funding steam like the Global Challenges Research Fund, were also suggested.


Read more: Half of universities prepared for no-deal Brexit


Elsewhere in the report, the authors said new, attractive visa rules were needed and suggested opening new centres of research, like a Zero Carbon Institute, which would bring together multidisciplinary expertise into one building.

Given there is a near-consensus that the UK should associate to the Horizon Europe programme in the 2020s, I would hope that the contingency plan contained in the report remain just that
– Dr Greg Walker, MillionPlus

Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, said: “Given there is a near-consensus that the UK should associate to the Horizon Europe programme in the 2020s, I would hope that the contingency plan contained in the report remain just that.

“Our focus should shift to how we can supplement participation in Horizon Europe with a long-term step change in the UK’s investment in research and innovation, that goes beyond the 2.4% of GDP in the report, aiming instead for a more ambitious 3% target that matches key OECD competitors.

“The report’s focus on ensuring that the post-Brexit ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ is fully aligned with the research and innovation agenda – and genuinely fills the gap left by European structural funds – is crucial.”


Read more: Brexit to hit UK’s global HE ranking


Securing associated country status to Horizon Europe will help the UK to continue to work seamlessly with research partners in, and beyond, Europe
– Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Securing associated country status to Horizon Europe will help the UK to continue to work seamlessly with research partners in, and beyond, Europe and attract the brightest minds from across the world.

“The report is right to recommend a balance between flexible funding and funding which would support specific international collaborations. Research funding decisions should be made based on excellence not political priorities.

“We support the emphasis on further improvements in visa policy and increased funding for research fellowship.”

Mr Skidmore said Horizon programmes had been good for business and research but the UK “should also be looking beyond Europe and seeking new relationships around the world”.

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