Australia’s top research universities want to forge a united front with the UK to boost both countries’ hopes of accessing the European Union’s next research funding programme.
The Group of Eight universities network is writing to Jo Johnson, recently reinstalled as universities and science minister in the British government, to propose that the two countries support each other’s application for associate membership of the €100 billion (£90 billion) Horizon Europe programme.
The overture comes after Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Chris Skidmore, told a parliamentary committee that Britain could strengthen its hand in Horizon Europe negotiations by teaming up with non-European nations.
The Go8 approach also follows a visit by the European Commission’s director general for research and innovation, Jean-Eric Paquet, who has been touring Australia and New Zealand to gauge interest in the flagship research and innovation funding scheme.
Universities in both countries are keen to explore new research funding streams. The Australian government bankrolls a steadily diminishing proportion of the national research effort and last year sliced A$329 million (£184 million) from university research funding schemes to pay for regional education commitments costing it A$135 million.
New Zealand universities have been starved of funding opportunities, with most available resources diverted to pay for the phasing out of tuition fees.
But Go8 executive director Vicki Thomson said formal membership status with Horizon Europe was “not just about access to a pot of funds. There’s a strategic imperative in being at the table of research collaborators, wherever they are,” she said.
“This would give us direct access for the first time to research and research funding in the European context. It would diversify our research collaboration.”
Mr Skidmore told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that the UK should “argue with the other associate members for a new form of association” and “make a big, bold offer to the commission on this issue”. A week later, on 24 July, he was replaced by Mr Johnson in a major Cabinet reshuffle by Mr Johnson’s brother and new prime minister Boris Johnson.
Ms Thomson said she would write to the new minister asking whether he shared his predecessor’s views. “We would be imploring him to consider the opportunities that may exist in working closely with associate countries like Australia,” she said.
The Go8 pitch comes as Brexit throws a spanner in the works of Australia’s involvement in Horizon Europe. Australia has relied on joint bids with UK institutions for funding under the €77 billion Horizon 2020 scheme – an avenue likely to vanish after the UK leaves the EU.
Collaboration with Australia, along with other strong research nations like Canada and Japan, is also in the UK’s interests as Europe seeks alternative partners to the US and China – and to avoid becoming caught in the crossfire of tensions between the superpowers.
The European Commission is consulting on policy settings for Horizon Europe. There has been speculation that it will extend associate country status, including rights to direct funding, to nations further afield from Europe.
In comments reported earlier this year by the Marie Curie Alumni Association, Mr Paquet said association membership of Horizon Europe – a status allowing research participation under the same conditions as member states – would be much wider than in the past.
Mr Paquet reportedly said he expected up to 30 countries to seek association, on top of the 16 countries that already have this status. “Exploratory” talks had already been held with ambassadors from Australia along with Brazil, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and several other nations.
Ms Thomson said mutually supportive applications would be well regarded by the European Commission. “They’re looking for us to demonstrate our willingness to collaborate.”
Australia’s industry, science and technology minister, Karen Andrews, met Mr Paquet during his visit. “Australia remains interested and engaged in Horizon Europe’s design process,” her spokesman said.
“[Australia] looks forward to learning more and responding to the commission’s models for international engagement as they develop and details become known.”
Membership fees are likely to be a major sticking point. It is understood that the European Commission is considering changes from the Horizon 2020 rules – where contributions were based on the size of national economies – to also take account of the funding countries have received to date.
Ms Thomson said the cost of participation could be relatively modest. “The return on the investment the Australian government could make would be far more significant than the investment,” she said.
Print headline: Australia and UK could boost each other’s prospects for access to European Union research funds with a joint bid, say sector leaders
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