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Use Horizon Europe deal to boost all of UK research

Image: Alan Turing Institute

Restored EU ties can be a platform for strengthening Britain’s global appeal, says Adrian Smith

We have waited a long time, a very long time, but with the announcement of the UK’s association to Horizon Europe, a weight has been lifted from the shoulders of the research and innovation community. The outpouring of relief, at home and across Europe, spoke to just how important it was to remove a significant barrier to scientific collaboration.

I don’t need to go over the case again here. But suffice to say we can now get on with building on the decades of collaborative research that have helped shape our world and improved countless lives.

Nor do I want to labour the damage caused by the delays in getting association done; even so, these are worth touching on, lest we forget. 

UK-based researchers have had to take a back seat on collaborations and that has harmed our leadership role. Despite UK Research and Innovation’s guarantee to cover EU funding, some good people decided to take their grants elsewhere. There was also the £1.6 billion allocated for association that was unspent and clawed back by the Treasury.

UKRI’s guarantee was vital in keeping funding flowing to researchers and maintaining a reasonable level of participation, with applications being submitted and reviewed. However, applications have dropped and expertise in dealing with EU funding has been lost, so there is still ground to make up. 

Back to business

The UK has always been a big beneficiary of EU funding programmes; we need to get back to where we were. We must be attracting the funding and the talent that is supported by Horizon Europe. I am confident we can do that and I would urge everyone to look at the opportunities that association opens up and go after them with confidence. 

The UK can hopefully get back to business quickly on schemes that fund individual researchers, such as the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. Building consortia will take longer, but we were leaders in the recent past and we can be again. 

Colleagues across Europe have supported our push for association because they want to work with us. Again, the onus is on us to rebuild those collaborations as quickly as possible.

All of this matters not just because it is good for research but because we need to make sure that the process of associating to the next Framework Programme, beginning in 2028, is easier and quicker. The argument that association is a win-win for research has been won and the UK government has secured what it considers a good deal, but we still need to drive up participation to a level deemed politically acceptable, meaning good value for the taxpayer.

There are still some barriers. Association does not exempt researchers from within the EU, or anywhere else, from the UK’s expensive visa process. There is also the possibility of a lingering sense of doubt about whether the country is fully open for business. 

On the former the research community must keep making the case to government for at least being competitive with other countries on immigration costs, and at best making it easier for the best talent to come to the UK. On the latter, all sides must do everything they can to show that the UK is back.

Backup benefits

As for Pioneer, or plan B, it would be easy to consign it to a drawer but too much work went into it for that. Pioneer was necessary—the UK had to plan for the possibility of association not happening—but it also gave an opportunity to take a hard look at our research funding system. 

I played a part in that when in 2019 the government asked myself and Graeme Reid to look at future frameworks for international collaboration. Association to Horizon programmes is the best foundation for this, but we can and should look to do more. 

Science is global and our worldwide collaborations and ability to attract talent must be too. The current science budget, with money allocated for association this year, has some scope to deliver. Hopefully a growing future science budget will offer even more scope. 

Thursday 7 September was a big day for the science community. There was time for celebration. Now we have to make the most of our victory —whether we are based in industry, research institutes or universities, researchers need to do what they are best at—sharing ideas, putting them to the test and using the knowledge gleaned to improve lives.

Adrian Smith is the president of the Royal Society

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