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Skidmore: Looking over the Horizon

Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chris Skidmore argues that the science community should be ready to embrace alternatives to Horizon

As the nights draw in, so too it seems do the final negotiations between the UK and the EU on a possible future trade deal. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has now set 15 October, in advance of the EU council, as the chronological red line that cannot be crossed. 

Other red lines held closely by both sides, whether on state aid or fisheries, seem unlikely to be crossed either, suggesting that we are likely to enter a new phase of our relationship with the EU—on WTO terms, or the Australian model. 

The prime minister has, however, been clear that the UK will always leave its door open to continued scientific cooperation with our European neighbours. What will this mean for the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe? 

I hope that, even at this late stage, the UK will be able to secure an association agreement, like that of other non-EU countries, such as Israel, into the research programme. Such an agreement should allow for participation in all pillars of Horizon, including the cherished European Research Council, in which the UK has continued to perform strongly, coming second only to Germany in this month’s recent award round. 

Co-operation and partnership, maintaining research teams that have been carefully forged over years, cannot easily have price tags placed upon them, which is why I have always been a strong advocate of continued participation in Horizon. 

But clearly this cannot come at any cost. I had hoped that research could have been hived off into a separate agreement, given that everyone would agree that science has no borders, but this has not been even countenanced.

The ‘no cherry-picking’ stance held by the EU has prevented Horizon and the wider EU research budget from securing financial security with UK contributions, and has now resulted in budget cuts to the programme that could have been avoided. Looking to the future, the EU has a choice: does Horizon Europe become the international research programme of its original vision, seeking to establish wider partnerships, or does it turn inwards, constrained by politics?  

Much will depend on how it treats non-EU countries. If the UK is to seek association into Horizon, it must be able to do so on the same terms as other association nations; whether this will be the case, remains uncertain. 

Be bold 

In six weeks’ time we will know whether the UK has a future in Horizon Europe. If it does not, then I believe we need to act fast in establishing international alternatives.  

When science minister, I was determined to start preparations early, publishing the first International Research and Innovation Strategy and commissioning Sir Adrian Smith and Graeme Reid to investigate what alternatives to Horizon membership should look like. I believe that now is the time for the UK to be bold, and if Horizon membership proves an impossibility, to seek to establish our own international science partnership fund.  

Already funds such as the Newton Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund, have allowed the UK to demonstrate global leadership in forging new research collaborations across all seven continents. Now is the time, if we wish to be a true ‘global science superpower’ to go even further, and seriously contemplate a new international research programme. 

Already the UK has sent out signals it is open to bringing in the best researchers, through both its Global Talent visa scheme and the recent UKRI announcement that research awards will be open to international students. The next stage should naturally be to establish a fund, with what would have been UK contributions to Horizon ringfenced to establish a new programme.  

Other countries should be sought out and asked to join and to contribute financially, creating a truly global research endeavour. There are many similar templates to such an endeavour, with ‘Big Science’ becoming a clear direction of travel, although many projects focus on a single issue or infrastructure—the ITER fusion reactor in southern France, for example. 

The UK could seek to create a fund focussing on a single issue–Net Zero, say, given our hosting of COP26 next year—or establish a new Big Science research infrastructure, perhaps as part of the government’s levelling-up agenda. 

Ideally, any future plans would embrace what Horizon and its component parts have been effective at—embracing people and all forms of research, including the humanities and social sciences. Embracing the interdisciplinary nature of scientific progress is crucial to maintaining its effectiveness, and to ensuring we do not lose one of our strengths to elsewhere. 

Give it a shot 

One possibility for achieving this comes in the recent talk of ‘moonshots’—though not the one relating to Covid-19 testing. Before that was announced on 9 September, the prime minister had approached the Council for Science and Technology for advice on creating priority areas for science, also termed moonshots. 

If the right moonshots are chosen here, then we might have a framework from which to establish new partnerships and new co-operations, while reaching out to existing institutions abroad that have benefitted from UK partnership in the past. And as any advocate of a moonshot approach knows, this requires a multidisciplinary effort. 

Maybe I am jumping ahead of myself. Yet the research and scientific community needs to be prepared to be on the front foot, ready to argue positively for replacement investment and, importantly, for what that investment should look like, if we do not join Horizon. I still hope we do. But we must be ready and willing to embrace change—and to seize the chance to shape it. 

Chris Skidmore was twice minister for universities, science, research and innovation between 2018 and 2020 and is now co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities.