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Science Christmas

The UK associates with Horizon Europe as vice-chancellors meet for their annual conference

Last night, the great and the good of UK higher education sat down in Whitworth Hall at the University of Manchester for their evening meal at the Universities UK get-together. The talk around the UUK dining tables was of one thing—Britain’s imminent association with Horizon Europe.

The news broke yesterday afternoon as Bloomberg and Reuters reported that a deal had been done to allow the UK to join the EU’s research and innovation programme. The Research Professional News team was soon able to confirm that association was at hand and only a few details of the agreement had still to be settled.

By the time the starters were being served in Whitworth Hall, the jungle drums were reporting that an official UK government announcement would be made at 7am today. That announcement duly arrived and science secretary Michelle Donelan has been doing the breakfast newsround proclaiming the good news.

Last night, Playbook spoke with several sources close to the action. Such was the infectious excitement, it was like being briefed by Science Santa’s elves before the science sleigh set sail on Science Christmas Eve.

We understand that yesterday afternoon, prime minister Rishi Sunak assembled ministers and officials at Number 10 to confirm the decision. The UK negotiating team had been led by staff from the Treasury with support from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

Government insiders wanted to stress that despite past appearances, Sunak is deeply committed to the association deal and “has been persuaded on the basis of facts”—the case made for the financial and non-monetary benefits of association by officials within the science department is said to have been decisive in winning the prime minister’s support.

Later in the day, Donelan then called a meeting of representatives from the national academies, UUK, the Russell Group and others to inform them that the government would be delivering on the sector’s preference for association with Horizon Europe rather than a rollout of Pioneer, the ‘plan B’.

However, before an announcement could be made, the European Commission had to pass the deal through its own legal processes in Brussels. Whitehall insiders are adamant that the Bloomberg leak came from the EU side, not the UK.

But the UK team was cock-a-hoop at the deal it had negotiated, which has several significant and transformative elements.

First, there will be a hard cap of 16 per cent of annual contribution should UK scientists be unsuccessful in applying to Horizon Europe schemes. Previous iterations of an agreement had suggested that any UK undershoot would be subject to review by a joint EU-UK committee, with remedial discussions taking place over a number of months.

That vague mitigation process has now been confirmed as a fixed 16 per cent limit, which pleases the Treasury no end.

At the same time, there will be no limit on UK success. Britain will be able to take out of the scheme more than it puts in, without any clawback.

Once again, the UK will be allowed to be a net beneficiary from the EU’s research programme. This, sources said last night, is the most generous offer the EU has made to any associated country.

As part of the deal, we are told, the EU is to “aggressively” promote UK participation in the scheme in an attempt to push up British success rates. The Commission will be pushing communications and networks to encourage other countries to work with British scientists.

This is thought to represent a win-win for both the UK and the EU as, given the quality of British science, UK-led bids will help accelerate the standard of research and innovation across the continent. Whitehall sources insist that this is a firm commitment on the part of the EU.

Science Hogmanay

Association will take place from January 2024, meaning that applications for all calls with closing dates or awards after 1 January 2024 fall under the association agreement.

Any other successful bids made in 2023 will be supported by the UK government’s underwrite. Despite earlier insistence from the Commission, the UK will not be required to retrospectively pay an association fee for 2023, which also pleases the Treasury enormously.

However, we understand that the deal does not include membership of Euratom, the European nuclear energy programme. This is a conscious decision on the part of the UK government.

We have been told that following consultation with the nuclear energy sector, the government came to the conclusion that it should invest directly in the growing UK fusion scene rather than funnel money to projects based in France, notably the Iter nuclear fusion demonstration facility. Our sources described this as a “carve out” from any commitment to Euratom.

Instead, we are told, the £650 million that would have gone to Europe will be used to anchor inward investment in the UK fusion scene, which the government is confident is moving faster than its European counterparts. Time will tell on the wisdom of that bet.

When we asked whether the Horizon deal meant the end of Pioneer, we were told, funnily enough, that the sector could not have its cake and eat it. Scientists and universities have repeatedly told the government that their preference was to join Horizon over the UK’s plan B, so now the sector has to step up and fill its boots with applications and success in the EU scheme.

However, there has been considerable learning around the construction of Pioneer and the government reserves the right to cherry-pick the best parts of the scheme, which some insist would have represented better value for money than Horizon association had this deal not been struck. We are told that there will be no rush on making decisions about which bits of Pioneer to preserve, but the government remains committed to providing a £20 billion annual science budget by 2025.

So, assuming our sources are accurate, and they usually are, this looks like a pretty good day for UK science. For a sector that often finds it hard to take ‘yes’ for an answer, on the face of it, this looks like UK researchers’ birthdays and Christmases have all come at once.

Everyone we spoke to in Whitehall last night, however, was unanimous in offering a word of warning to UK universities. They insisted that this deal is not about the future of Sunak’s government but the future of British science.

The worst thing academics and researchers could do, given the political capital spent on the deal, would be to quibble over details and be “mealy-mouthed” about the plan or halfhearted in participation. This is what the sector asked for and now it is time to keep its side of the bargain or risk credibility in any future funding discussions, we were told.

We can expect UUK president Sally Mapstone to discuss the deal in her address to the conference this morning at 9am. We will also bring you detail on, and responses to, the agreement throughout the day on the Research Professional News website.

And finally…

At the UUK shindig later today, delegates will hear from chief executive Vivienne Stern, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and the Office for Students’ freedom of speech director Arif Ahmed—as a Cambridge don, we can be assured that he knows how to dine at the top table.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan was due to speak but had to withdraw “due to other priorities” [like the prime minister’s career?—Ed]. Her shadow Bridget Phillipson has correspondingly switched her own appearance from, shall we say, a concrete one to a virtual one.

Keegan will be replaced on the schedule by higher education and skills minister Robert Halfon, who we are told may or may not be there in person. It is not clear whether that is due to diary clashes or the difficulty in finding a train running between London and Manchester at short notice.

While UUK can at least consider itself out of the woods on industrial action over the Universities Superannuation Scheme, the national dispute over pay and conditions continues.

Yesterday, a ballot of University and College Union members saw 60 per cent of respondents indicate that they wanted to halt the marking and assessment boycott that saw a significant number of students not receive their degree and exam results at the end of the last academic year. However, the union also confirmed yesterday that the start of the new teaching year would be marked by five days of strikes in 140 higher education institutions, with most of the industrial action taking place between 25 and 29 September—freshers’ week for some.

The UCU will be seeking to extend its mandate for national action with a ballot of members later this month.

On Monday, Universities and Colleges Employers Association chief executive Raj Jethwa wrote to UCU general secretary Jo Grady seeking a response to a previous request to return to the arbitration service Acas. Resolution in the dispute seems as far away as ever as negotiations over next year’s pay award begin.

On Research Professional News today

Daniel Cressey and Sophie Inge bring us the breaking news that the UK government has confirmed a Horizon Europe deal.

With Mico Tatalovic, Sophie tells us what experts think six months after science got its own department under Michelle Donelan.

University funding and international openness top the coming year’s policy priorities, says Molly Morgan Jones.

The British Academy has reported “promising” results from the first year of trialling partial randomisation of grant awards, finds Nina Bo Wagner.

University staff are preparing to start the academic year with strikes and marking boycotts already looming after last year’s disruption, Chris Parr tells us, and the rising cost of living is worsening the university experience for some students, with the crisis affecting academic performance, skills development and wellbeing, according to the Office for National Statistics.

He adds that a vice-chancellor has said that universities must treat international students “as people, not numbers”.

Tim Vorley comments on how UK Research and Innovation is investing £7m over three years to create an Innovation and Research Caucus as a centre of excellence to provide evidence and insights on the research and innovation system.

Robin Bisson reports that the EU competition chief with responsibility for R&D has withdrawn from her role as she bids to lead the European Investment Bank.

The European Commission is looking for a new set of experts to advise it on the economic and social impacts of research and innovation, and European learned academies have backed a political motion for the EU to strengthen its protection of scientific freedom. Rachel Magee reports.

In the news

The BBC reports that the UK is expected to rejoin Horizon Europe, Queen’s University Belfast staff are unlikely to join widespread university strikes, and students are cutting back on food as the cost of living soars.

In The Guardian, UK university staff are poised to strike for five days in freshers’ week, and the prime minister has hailed the ‘right deal for the country’ as the UK rejoins Horizon Europe.

The Financial Times says that the UK is to rejoin Horizon Europe.

In The Telegraph, the start of the university term is to be hit with five days of UK-wide strikes, and thousands of graduates ‘now have £100,000 in student debt’.

In The Times, Britain is to rejoin Horizon Europe, an Oxford transgender inclusion policy ‘stifles free speech’, Oxford Nanopore is tightening its guidance, university staff are to walk out over a 5 per cent pay rise, and a Billy Connolly mural is to be replaced by student flats.

The National reports that Scottish universities are to be rocked by strike action.

The day ahead

The UK government and the European Commission have confirmed an association agreement for Horizon Europe.

Universities UK’s annual conference begins, with contributions planned from government ministers and opposition spokespeople.

The Westminster Education Forum is holding a conference from 9am on the next steps for apprenticeship funding in England.

The European University Association is holding a webinar at 10am on the needs and expectations of higher education institutions around quality assurance.

The Society for Research into Higher Education is holding an event from 11am on part-time doctoral study.

The Association of University Administrators is holding its annual general meeting from 12pm.

From 2pm, the Centre for Global Higher Education holds its second webinar of the week on artificial intelligence in higher education, focusing on a decolonial approach to the topic.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is holding a regional event in Edinburgh to launch its health technologies strategy.

The Playbook would not be possible without Martyn Jones, Harriet Swain, Chris Parr, Orlen Crawford and Fiona McIntyre.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.

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