Stop ‘abusing’ Horizon Europe as bargaining chip, UK and EU urged

Universities across Europe to launch ‘Stick to Science’ campaign warning against ‘politicisation’, as football-style ‘transfer market’ emerges to tempt away UK-based researchers

二月 1, 2022

The UK risks losing leading researchers to continental European universities in a “kind of football transfer” market, while both Brussels and Westminster must stop “abusing” the issue of the UK’s association to the European Union research programme as a bargaining chip.

Those were the among the warnings from sector experts who gave evidence to the House of Lords European Affairs Committee on the UK’s association to Horizon Europe – currently held up as the European Commission uses the issue as a “bargaining chip” with the UK government in wider Brexit wrangles over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

If the UK were to find itself outside Horizon Europe, one major loss would be that researchers working full-time in the UK would no longer be eligible for European Research Council grants – the prestigious system sometimes described as the “Champions League of research” or “mini-Nobel Prizes”.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities and a professor of law at KU Leuven, told the committee that if the UK did not associate, there could be “not only a much more limited influx [into] the UK [of] people from the continent…but we will also get a kind of exodus…of a lot of academics, top academics, from the UK to other countries.

“The most problematic case there is the whole group of ERC grantees based in the UK.”

Funding is secure for ERC grant holders in the UK whose funding was awarded under Horizon 2020, the previous EU research programme. But for grants awarded from this year onwards, grant holders in the UK will need to be based in an EU member state or associated country to gain their funding. The same will apply for ERC grant holders hoping to secure further grants in the future.

Professor Deketelaere said he hoped the UK would associate. “But it’s clear we can also not deny that a kind of football transfer system is starting up in continental Europe looking at the best people…based in the UK [who] can perhaps be seduced by all kinds of interesting offers from EU27 universities,” he added.

On the wider politics, Professor Deketelaere said he was “sure” Horizon Europe is being used as a bargaining chip. “And it’s a bargaining chip on both sides of the channel,” he continued.

“The UK government knows that the EU absolutely wants the UK to associate” and is looking at “the price it can get for that”, in “excluding the European Court of Justice out of the Northern Ireland Protocol”, he said.

Meanwhile, the European Commission “knows the UK academic world absolutely wants to join the framework programme and is also abusing that”.

“We see that on both sides…there is an abuse of this Horizon Europe [issue] as a bargaining chip,” said Professor Deketelaere.

Universities and research organisations across Europe will soon launch the ‘Stick to Science’ campaign, which will push for an “open and inclusive European Research Area” including the UK and Switzerland in Horizon Europe, the committee heard.

The message of the campaign will be “don’t get this thing politicised”, said Professor Deketelaere. “Because at the end of the day we are only going to have losers if we continue like that.”

On the Boris Johnson government’s aim to make the nation a “science superpower”, Robin Grimes, foreign secretary of the Royal Society, told the committee: “I don’t think that is achievable without a very strong commitment to international scientific collaboration. And Horizon Europe is the world’s largest multinational research funding programme.”

Peter Mason, head of international engagement at Universities UK International, said it has received the message from UK ministers that the government is “ready to sign [on association] as and when the agenda item is brought forward by the Commission”.

“The hold-up does indeed seem to be on the Commission side,” he added.



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