The UK must associate to Horizon Europe without more delay

It would be extraordinary if the UK chose to switch to Plan B at the very moment the main obstacle to Plan A was being removed, says Joanna Burton

March 14, 2023
a road with the European flag on it
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Research into Aids vaccines that could transform the way we work to prevent transmission of HIV. The development of airborne autonomous vehicles with the potential to change the way we travel and transport goods. Using virtual reality and digital storytelling to help us understand what life might have been like for people hundreds of years ago.

These three important projects might be very different, but they have one thing in common: they are all being driven by international collaborations, led by Russell Group universities, that have been made possible by European Union R&D frameworks and funding.

By bringing together nearly 50 academic and industry partners from across Europe and beyond, these projects also demonstrate how a research team’s range of international partnerships can be just as important as the size of its grants, a point that sometimes gets lost in debates about R&D.

This is not to say money is not important. It is, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise. The UK has always been one of the most successful participants in European framework programmes for research in cash terms, and we would expect this to continue. However, UK decision-makers looking again at the value case for the different funding streams under Horizon Europe must consider not only pounds and pennies but also the raft of benefits of Horizon association, which go far beyond financial returns.

At the top of this list is the established framework, with its common rules and funding cycles, which provides ease of access to international talent and long-standing networks and partnerships. Participation in Horizon Europe offers a shortcut to impactful collaboration that makes the most of the years of work universities and others have put into building cross-border research networks. This is something that simply cannot be replicated overnight in any alternative domestic programme, however ambitious the vision or funding might be.

Second on the list is scale. Success in science comes through working across borders and disciplines. Full association to Horizon Europe will place the UK firmly in the world’s largest-ever programme for multi-country collaborative R&D, bringing together groups of five, 10 or even more academic and industry partners to work together on research challenges. The links supported by common EU frameworks for R&D have been critical to allowing UK researchers to operate on the same scale as countries such as the US and China.

Finally, access to EU funding is a significant pull factor for international talent who want to base themselves and their research teams at leading UK universities. Any short-term savings by not associating could come at a long-term cost to our ability to bring the world’s best researchers to the UK and keep them here.

Horizon Europe can be a cornerstone for the UK’s global science ambition. As well as facilitating collaboration with the best in Europe, the scheme has a reach that extends well beyond the EU27. Horizon 2020, the previous EU R&D programme, helped the UK establish more than 237,000 collaborative links in 163 countries. Association would open the door quickly for high-quality work with the best researchers, innovators and businesses worldwide, and could sit alongside any new schemes.

The government was right to explore options for Horizon Europe alternatives while issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol remained unresolved, and we were pleased to work with officials and ministers in doing so. Associating to Horizon need not entail the cancellation of these proposals: they could easily run alongside the EU scheme, sending a clear signal that the UK is a serious global player.

However, we have always been clear that relying solely on new UK R&D schemes was a second-best option when a wide-ranging, excellence-based multilateral programme was ready and waiting.

Universities, businesses and others involved in UK R&D hoped the announcement of the Windsor Framework on trade with Northern Ireland would kickstart long-delayed action to secure UK association to Horizon Europe, but we are concerned that some in government could now be wavering. The priority now should be for both sides to come to the table as soon as possible and work towards a fair and sensible participation fee for the UK, which reflects the delay in association and does not seek to re-open the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Ministers have been steadfast over the last two years that association to Horizon Europe would be the best outcome for UK R&D and the simplest way to protect the international partnerships that underpin the quality of our research. They have backed this up with crucial funding guarantees to underpin UK research teams while the Northern Ireland protocol issues were being looked at. It would be extraordinary if the UK chose to switch to Plan B at the very moment the main obstacle to Plan A was being removed.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has made it clear that rapid negotiations to secure UK association to Horizon Europe are high on the EU’s agenda and can start right away. The UK government should take her up on the offer of early technical talks as a matter of urgency. Now is the time for ministers to hold their nerve and get Horizon Europe done.

Joanna Burton is policy manager at the Russell Group.

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