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On international ties, UK research needs plans A and B


Horizon Europe limbo undermines ministers’ fine words on national scientific ambition, says Rory Duncan

It’s been an extraordinary few weeks in UK science policy. The publication of Paul Nurse’s long-awaited review of the R&D landscape came on the same day as the newly minted Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) released its Science and Technology Framework, setting out 10 steps towards, in prime minister Rishi Sunak’s words, making the UK a beacon for science, technology and innovation. 

But there is a glaring difference between the review and the framework: mention of the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme. Nurse contends, repeatedly, that for the UK to be a beacon, or a science superpower, it should participate in Horizon Europe—with all the international collaboration, influence and reputation it brings. 

The review mentions Horizon Europe 14 times. The Framework doesn’t mention it once. 

February’s breakthrough in UK-EU negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that UK association to Horizon Europe—agreed in the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement but delayed by the impasse in the implementation of the protocol—would soon follow. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said talks to allow full UK access to Horizon Europe could start “immediately” once the Windsor Framework is ratified. 

But Sunak was silent on the same point. He was also less than clear when asked about UK association to Horizon Europe in prime minister’s questions. DSIT secretary of state Michelle Donelan and science minister George Freeman were more forthcoming: Horizon Europe must represent value for money, and the 2020 agreement would need to be renegotiated. 

Ominously, Donelan went on to say that “we would need the process to be reasonably swift… we shouldn’t be paying for the two years that we lost”. 

‘Reasonably swift’ is tricky to quantify. One thing is certain, however: limbo is never helpful. 

Losing confidence

UK researchers are losing the confidence to apply for EU funding, despite excellent work from national funder UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in underwriting any Horizon Europe funds won by UK investigators. This adds to the perception of poor value.

Spending public money wisely is a no-brainer—not to mention ministers’ and officials’ job. Taxpayers needs to know the value of research and innovation—the recent Discovery Decade survey found growing public doubt about prioritising science in spending, so failing to deliver value for money would be catastrophic.

Like everything, Horizon Europe is imperfect. Despite efforts to make applications less burdensome, it remains bureaucratic. The programme’s European Research Council could do more to fund interdisciplinary research, and to increase the diversity of its award holders. 

But there are ironies here: the landscape review criticises a focus on the monetary costs and benefits of research while losing sight of its true value. Looking at Horizon Europe’s bottom line misses many benefits of international collaboration: leadership, mobility, diplomacy, reputation, and continuity for academia and business. Horizon Europe funding is prestigious and can attract people with great potential. European-funded collaborations are more highly cited than UK-funded research, mobile researchers tend to be more impactful in their careers, and so on. 

Ministers, and most of the UK research community, have expressed their preference for plan A—full association to Horizon Europe as soon as possible. But given the recent noises and silences from government, the domestic alternative programme of plan B, which Freeman has talked up, remains in mind, if out of sight.

Beyond European shores

Many people in UKRI and the national academies have worked hard to come up with alternatives for Horizon Europe. This is no mean feat—replacing a continental funding and support system is not straightforward, especially if the goalposts keep shifting. But the lack of clear information about alternatives makes researchers anxious. 

Donelan has rightly made much of the opportunity for UK researchers to collaborate beyond European shores. Global challenges are, well, global, and the government’s trailing of plan B last year highlighted opportunities for UK researchers to collaborate with Australia, India, the Pacific region and North America. 

Large-scale, global funding programmes to support such collaborative ties would be transformative. The key question is whether the government can put our money where its mouth is to make the UK a genuine global science superpower, allowing association to Horizon Europe and enabling large-scale global collaboration at the same time. 

Rory Duncan is pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Sheffield Hallam University

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version appeared in Research Europe