Government confirms Horizon Europe contingencies

The sector has welcomed the specifics for transition arrangements but questioned how comprehensive and detailed the long-term plan was

The UK government has published its long-term substitute for Horizon Europe membership, the so-called ‘Plan B’ if – as many now fear – association with the EU R&D scheme ends. 

Continued association with the European €95.5bn research programme has looked increasingly uncertain this year, as the UK and European Commission became mired in disagreement over the Northern Ireland protocol. 

On 20 July, the government published short-term and long-term UK R&D support. Earlier this month, former science minister George Freeman outlined the approximate remit of a domestic ‘plan B’ for Horizon Europe. In November 2021, the UK launched a “guarantee” for UK applicants that secured European Commission (EC) grants before December 2022. 

Plan B consists of a long-term plan with R&D priorities set by the government, particularly its new National Science and Technology Council. Short-term, “a suite of temporary transitional measures” will offer “stability and continuity of funding” for UK R&D. 

Short-term

Transitional measures include a Horizon Europe Guarantee, a promise of replacement funding for successful UK applications before the end of 2022, and funds for in-flight applications that miss out on the cut-off “to ensure the best get funded should the EC no longer carry out the evaluation”. 

Other transitional measures include more funding for Innovate UK schemes targeted at small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) and a “bold new UK fellowship and award programme” to attract and retain overseas researchers. The government will fund all UK organisations applying to Horizon Europe as an unaffiliated, so-called ‘third country’, institution until early 2025. 

Long-term

The long-term vision published by the government speaks of “a new flagship talent offer, with high-value, long-term fellowships and a strong international mobility offer”. There will, too, be funds for global partnerships, with cash for “bottom-up collaborations with researchers in partner countries around the globe; multilateral and bilateral collaborations; and Third Country Participation in Horizon Europe”. 

There will be a new focus and funding for end-to-end innovation, particularly “accelerating commercialisation and uptake of innovation”. Universities should expect “additional funding” to help them respond to the new UK approach and support to build “world-class infrastructure [and] digital research capability”. 

In particular, says the government, the replacement should “take the best features” of the European precursor but be better suited to the UK priorities and levelling up R&D investment outside the greater southeast (GSE). Hallmarks of the new scheme will be less bureaucracy and more flexibility, the government document adds. 

Response

Professor Steve West, president of Universities UK, said associating was “still, by far, the best outcome” and “ongoing delay… is very damaging”. The government document, he said, “provides welcome transparency around government contingency plans, especially for short-term stability”.

“We now require more precise information on the budget and timeline for implementing these plans,” continued Prof West. “Universities want to work closely with the government to shape long-term alternatives to Horizon Europe if association falls through. Time is pressing, and we, therefore, ask politicians to continue to push hard for association as a matter of extreme urgency.” 

Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), said the plans “provid[e] some clarity and detail” but warned it “only hints at, rather than delivers, a new alternative vision for R&D activity”. 

Dr Marshall added it was vital for the “long-term health and prosperity of the UK” that government commits “globally competitive levels of public support and mechanism” to support international research. 

University Alliance CEO Vanessa Wilson said plans to avoid a “funding cliff edge” “are finally forming”. 

“However,” added Wilson, “research funding and the Horizon programme are complicated and multifaceted. If the UK does not secure access to Horizon, a Plan B will need to swing into action in a matter of weeks from now. The lack of detail released today is therefore deeply concerning.” 

She warned of “an autumn of chaos and a missed opportunity to bolster the UK’s position as a research and innovation superpower in the long run” if ministers did not engage urgently with the sector. 

On 19 July, the Russell Group sent a letter to the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, urging her not to entangle research in Europe and the UK with the Northern Ireland protocol.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said association was “too important to be used as part of a negotiation and the current impasse shows this is having no leverage over the Northern Ireland protocol”.

“Russell Group universities have been major players in the European research programmes, particularly in the ‘Excellent Science’ schemes. Without the UK’s full association, the programme will become less competitive, with knock-on impacts for the excellence and prestige of EU grants,” added Dr Bradshaw.


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