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Prime minister reportedly considering draft Horizon deal

Image: Number 10 [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Value for money remains a concern, with Rishi Sunak eyeing up alternative UK Pioneer programme

The prime minister is reviewing a draft deal for the UK to rejoin the EU’s Horizon Europe R&D programme, according to media reports, but he is reportedly unconvinced that it represents good value compared with a UK alternative.

The Press Association news wire has reported that Rishi Sunak “remains concerned over the price of rejoining” the programme as he is “seeking value for money and is still considering a UK-based alternative to the collaboration scheme known as Pioneer”.

The news wire cited unnamed sources as confirming that “a draft text produced after months of negotiations is with Mr Sunak”, with one Whitehall source saying “the EU have moved a little on the money but not nearly as much as [Sunak] wants”.

Government denials

However, the same sources have reportedly downplayed the prospect of a deal being signed with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Lithuania next week where the two are set to meet at the Nato conference in Vilnius on Tuesday.

Downing Street declined to comment specifically on the Press Association report.

Government sources denied again today that anything had been agreed by the UK. “Talks are ongoing and therefore we have not yet agreed a deal,” said a government spokesperson.

Earlier in the week, media reports emerged that negotiators had reached a draft deal to be presented to Sunak ahead of a meeting with von der Leyen next Tuesday.

The government said reports of a draft deal do not reflect the current state of negotiations.

Yesterday, according to the Press Association, the prime minister’s spokesman said talks with the EU had been “constructive…but we continue to explore all options including a UK-based [Pioneer] option”.

Pioneer was unveiled in April as the alternative to joining Horizon Europe if a deal could not be reached.

‘We must seek value for money’

Downing Street said the prime minister “has been clear we must seek value for money for taxpayers and do what’s in the best interests of UK science and research”.

Talks have been taking place since the two sides reached a political agreement in February on trade, which opened the door to the UK rejoining EU programmes.

The sticking point has been the price tag, with the government arguing that two years spent outside Horizon Europe will affect how much British scientists will get back in funding over the remaining years.

EU ‘very surprised’

Yesterday, the European Commission’s chief spokesperson Eric Mamer said “there was nothing new for us to announce” and that “we did not communicate anything on this”.

“We were very surprised that news was given to the public on the ongoing discussions and we have absolutely no further comment to make,” said Mamer.

Earlier in the week, Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič hinted at progress during an EU-UK meeting, saying that UK association to EU programmes “could be ready very swiftly”.

“We remain ready to discuss the UK’s further concerns,” Šefčovič said, adding that the “value and mutual benefit created by our research cooperation far exceeds budgetary concerns”.

Community keeps up pressure

The UK research community reacted excitedly to reports of a draft deal, after years of pressuring the government to join Horizon Europe, while some reserved judgment on whether to celebrate.

Today, three Scottish university heads wrote to Sunak, urging him to get a deal over the line.

“We understand that the UK government has a responsibility to secure the best return from investment in international partnerships,” said Sally Mapstone, Paul Grice and Iain Gillespie, principals at the University of St Andrews, Queen Margaret University and the University of Dundee, respectively.

“Scotland’s higher education community is clear that association to Horizon Europe is the best way to secure this,” they added.

While many figures are hopeful, some are worried that Sunak will reject the deal. 

Mike Galsworthy, director of Scientists for EU lobby group, yesterday raised doubts about Sunak’s commitment to a deal.

“We all remember that Rishi Sunak was the one who cancelled our Erasmus+ deal at the last minute,” he told Research Professional News. 

“And when the Westminster Framework was signed, von der Leyen said it was ‘good news for science’, but Sunak kept quiet. What a missed moment. In short, I don’t trust him to do the right thing. I worry that he may have only negotiated partial access or something inadequate like that. I hope I’m wrong.”

Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, told Research Professional News it would be “great news” if the deal is ready for approval, but said he was not sure he would believe it “until I see it signed and sealed”.