A stop-gap safety net has been announced as the UK government and the European Union struggle to agree terms over the UK’s association with Horizon Europe, the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation.
The UK government revealed yesterday (29 November) that successful Horizon Europe applicants, unable to sign grant agreements with the EU, will be guaranteed their funding regardless of the outcome of UK/EU negotiations.
UK participation in the seven-year programme is reportedly collateral damage in a dispute between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol and fishing rights in UK waters.
The EU provisionally agreed to UK participation in its new research programmes – including Horizon Europe and the Copernicus Earth observation programme – last December, in return for an annual payment of £2.1 bn.
In last month’s budget, the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, pledged that the government would continue to meet the cost for Horizon Europe association.
This safety net will give researchers and their partners the certainty they need to continue to pursue their project plans and maintain world-class science – George Freeman
“The Horizon programme has been a vital source of fellowships and collaborations for UK researchers over the years, which is why the UK and the EU agreed terms for the UK’s participation in the programme under the [Trade and Cooperation Agreement],” said George Freeman, the minister for science, research and innovation.
“The persistent delays from the EU in formalising our association is creating uncertainty in the sector and risks preventing valuable international collaboration on shared global challenges, like climate change.
“We are committed to supporting the UK’s world-class research sector in international collaborations, and this safety net will give researchers and their partners the certainty they need to continue to pursue their project plans and maintain world-class science.”
The funding announcement was welcomed by Professor Christopher Smith, international champion at UK Research and Innovation, the body charged with administering the safety net.
“We will be finalising the processes needed to distribute the funds in the coming weeks,” he said.
“We are also working with the government to prepare for all possible outcomes to ensure the UK’s thriving research and innovation sector has the support it needs to continue collaborating and delivering world-class R&D.
“In the meantime, we encourage researchers and innovators across the UK to continue to apply to open Horizon Europe calls.”
Earlier this month, 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”.
In January of this year, the UK government published a UK Research and Development Roadmap which said:
“If we do not formally associate to Horizon Europe or Euratom R&T, we will implement ambitious alternatives as quickly as possible from January 2021 and address the funding gap. As a first step we will launch an ambitious new Discovery Fund offering sizeable grants over long periods of time to talented early-, mid- and late-career researchers.
“Under all scenarios, it is our aim that UK organisations and entities continue to participate in Horizon Europe collaborative projects open to third countries, as well as in wider international collaborations.”
The government yesterday reiterated that this remains its position if the UK is unable to associate to Horizon Europe.