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From plan B to Pioneer


Raking over the details of the UK’s Horizon Europe backup plan

In April, we had first sight of the government’s plans for its alternative to the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme, should the current discussions with Brussels fail to reach agreement on UK access.

The preferred outcome remains a deal with the EU, but what if that doesn’t happen? What are the government’s ‘go it alone’ plans like? And what do we still need to know about them?

Previously known as simply ‘plan B’, the alternative to Horizon now has the more enticing name, Pioneer. The prospectus uses an odd, jaunty font and a cover picture of Earth from space. There’s a clear reference to horizons in both the curve of the logo and the photo. The consumer is reminded of Horizon Europe, just as the Aldi shopper is brought to recall, say, a Twix when reaching for Jive biscuit in the confectionery aisle. 

That’s not a great starting point. But I was pleasantly surprised by Pioneer’s contents. Briefly, its seven-year agenda is structured into four pillars (always the pillars, always the pillars):

1. Talent (£2bn)

This is essentially a replacement for the European Research Council, with elements of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions but less bureaucracy and “larger, longer and more flexible awards than Horizon equivalents”. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the prospectus: ours is larger and longer than yours. Such is superpower bragging, I guess.

2. Innovation (£3.5bn)

The government’s take on innovation includes both senses of the word: business-led collaborations and radical and transformational projects. Details of how it will be achieved are somewhat sketchy, though we know it will be in four broad areas: health innovations; green industrial growth; resilient UK; and transformative technologies. There’ll be a “pulse of funding”, which will include sandpits, “challenge prizes and [the global R&D innovation network] Eureka”. And lots of “moonshots”—the word is repeated 28 times throughout the prospectus.

3. Global collaboration (£3.8bn)

This is Pioneer’s attempt to do three things: incorporate Horizon Europe’s aim of encouraging pan-European and international collaboration, provide a sop to the demise of Official Development Assistance funding, and administer a shot of adrenaline to the bedraggled bodies of Britannia Unchained and Singapore-on-Thames.

4. Infrastructure (£1.7bn)

This feels like the most political of all the pillars. Yes, it promises infrastructure funding (with an interesting, small-but-huge caveat: “if needed”), but there’s a strong nod towards levelling up, so there’s a whiff of pork-barrel politics here.

The good, the bad, the ugly

I do think the overall framework is good, but somewhat undermined by three basic questions: First: will the UK really be better off with Pioneer? It’s true, as science and innovation secretary Michelle Donelan suggests on page four of the prospectus, that “our receipts from Horizon would be uncertain as they depend on the performance of UK participants in competitive processes”. But her implication that, based on the figures for Horizon 2020, the UK would probably lose out is odd at best. In Horizon 2020, the opposite was true. The UK was a net beneficiary. The government knows this and implying otherwise suggests it has something to hide.

Second: Do the numbers add up? The prospectus says “the UK [will] invest around £14.6bn over seven years”. However, the figures for the four pillars only add up to £11bn. If you factor in the money set aside for third-country participation in Horizon Europe (£1.3bn) and the money already spent on the guarantee to support successful UK bids to Horizon while negotiations have continued (another £1.3bn), we’re still a billion short.

Third: will Pioneer be open to political interference? The Haldane principle, which separates research funding decisions from party politics, is enshrined in the legislation that created UK Research and Innovation, which would deliver much of Pioneer. There is a clear danger of Haldane being breached in Pioneer’s infrastructure pillar which explicitly builds on levelling up pledges to raise public R&D investment “outside the greater south-east by at least 40 per cent by 2030”. It’s a worry: is the pillar (or Pioneer more broadly) being used for political ends, however well-intentioned?

This last point is concerning. The EU’s framework programmes may have many shortcomings and are certainly not free of politics, but they have significant proven benefits, offering a common platform for European and global research and innovation. To step off this platform and to rely on the vagaries of national government agendas will take a significant leap of faith for uncertain and questionable additional benefits. 

Hang on, doesn’t that remind you of something else? 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com