Concern grows over UK’s future in Horizon Europe

UUK and the Russell Group have warned of the consequences of the UK’s potential withdrawal from Horizon Europe, the EU’s funding programme for research and innovation

Concerns are growing over the prospects of the UK remaining a part of Horizon Europe, the EU’s funding programme for research and innovation.

While the UK’s leaving the EU curtailed its full membership of the initiative, the terms of the Brexit deal allowed it to continue in an associate role.

Almost 18 months on from that provisional agreement, with the UK paying an annual sum of £2.1 bn to continue its participation in the EU’s research programmes, consensus has yet to be reached on exactly how to proceed.

“I can tell you today that the window for association is closing, and closing fast,” Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, will tell the League of European Research Universities conference later this week.

“Indeed, it increasingly feels as if we are right on the brink, with association to be snatched away before the summer.”

While claiming that the UK government is right to make contingency plans for a failure to come to agreement, Bradshaw will add:

“Make no mistake: failure to move forward with UK association would be bad news for research and a second-best outcome for both the UK and the EU.”

This path risks a severe and self-inflicted wound to our continent’s scientific potential – UUK

Insisting that “there is a genuine commitment from the [UK] science minister and others to getting association over the line if we possibly can”, Bradshaw will warn fellow delegates that they should “ensure that you are also making the case with your own governments and officials within the commission before it is too late.”

In November 2021, the heads of 25 organisations representing more than 1,000 universities wrote to the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, to warn that a lack of agreement over the UK’s association with Horizon Europe risked “a major weakening of our collective research strength and competitiveness”.

And in February this year, the Stick to Science campaign was launched with a plea for European leaders to “stop playing politics and put the interests of people first”.

To date it has gained the support of nearly 6,000 signatories from across the European and global scientific community, including 11 Nobel laureates, as well as entrepreneurs and innovators, research funding bodies, and heads of HE institutions and research institutes.

“This lingering uncertainty has already damaged longstanding scientific relationships,” said Universities UK (UUK) in a blog last week. “UK scientists have been forced to give up leadership roles or even leave research teams all together, to the detriment of many existing projects.

“These include crucial research aiming to improve climate data and tackle poverty-related diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, among many other examples.

“The UK held second place in terms of number of participations in Horizon 2020, but early data on Horizon Europe show that the UK has already fallen to seventh place this time around.”

Failure to move forward with UK association would be bad news for research and a second-best outcome for both the UK and the EU – Dr Tim Bradshaw, Russell Group

The European Research Council (ERC) recently wrote to UK winners of grants from 2021 to tell them that they have two months to relocate to the EU if they want to retain their awards. While noting that these researchers are covered by a UK government funding guarantee, UUK said that the situation is “yet another example of the lamentable impact of this delay, with researchers and research getting caught in the crossfire”.

Arguing that the best-case scenario would be the UK’s admission to Horizon Europe – a “clear and unambiguous victory for European research and prosperity” – UUK has set down a number of short- and longer-term recommendations on how best the UK government should proceed if association is discontinued:

Short-term:

  • A commitment to completing domestic assessment of those funding bids which would become ineligible for EU funding
  • Budget increases for upcoming domestic grant and fellowship calls, such as the UKRI Future Leader Fellowships and other national academy schemes 
  • Delivery of the commitment to fund its third country-status participation in a way that ensures there are no additional rules or limit on UK involvement, nor any secondary assessment of UK bids  
  • A flexible block grant to be allocated to UK universities on the basis of Horizon 2020 receipts to cushion the loss of EU funding, in anticipation of a steep drop in UK participation when it becomes a third country 

Longer-term:

  • New schemes to attract and retain world-leading academics and enable global research mobility  
  • More bilateral science funding agreement with developed economies across the world, especially in Europe and including bottom-up opportunities 
  • Funding to stimulate new international business investment in UK university research and innovation 
  • Support for internationally collaborative PhDs between UK universities and institutions overseas, including with industrial partners 

In the meantime, said UUK, all interested parties should sign up to Stick to Science campaign.

“We need the European research and innovation community to speak loudly and with one voice, telling our governments that this path risks a severe and self-inflicted wound to our continent’s scientific potential,” it concluded.

“But the clock is ticking.”

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