Australian exit from Horizon Europe talks a ‘missed opportunity’

Canberra quietly scrapped plans to join world’s biggest research collaboration scheme in mid-2023

June 21, 2024
Point Lonsdale, Victoria, Australia - April 16, 2024 Point Lonsdale Pier with the ocean, beach and an overcast sky
Source: iStock/Tammy Walker

Australia’s decision to quietly pull out of talks to join the world’s biggest research collaboration scheme a year ago is a “missed opportunity” for the sector, leaders have warned.

The country has not followed New Zealand in securing association membership to Horizon Europe, the flagship European Union research programme with a budget of €95.5 billion (£80.8 billion) over six years.

A European Commission spokeswoman confirmed that Australia had advised that it was “not in a position to currently engage in the process” last June.

“We remain fully available to continuing the discussion if there is a renewed interest from Australia’s side,” she said. “Australia is a key partner for the EU, including when it comes to cooperation on research and innovation.”

Canberra balked at the potential cost of contributions to projects funded under the scheme, according to Research Professional News.

New Zealand became the first highly industrialised non-European country to link to the programme when its association agreement was formally ratified last July. Its researchers had already been able to apply for EU funding for five months under a transitional access arrangement.

A year on, New Zealanders had proven successful in seven of the 23 Horizon Europe funding applications they had been involved in, securing a share of €36 million for research into arts education, citizen democracy, disaster resilience, new fabrics, infectious diseases, plant health and personalised clinical care. More than 30 more applications with New Zealand involvement were being assessed.

According to a March progress report from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Wellington expected to spend about NZ$50 million (£24 million) on Horizon Europe funding co-contributions, a participation fee and a “domestic overheads top-up” for research institutions involved in successful bids.

In return, the ministry expected research funding, “recognition” for its research organisations and “more global connections” – particularly after the UK rejoined the scheme in late 2023Early indications are that New Zealand proposals will be very competitive,” the report says.

At least five of New Zealand’s eight universities have so far won funding under the scheme. Peter Gostomski, acting deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of Canterbury, said Horizon Europe partnership was valuable in the “current economic climate”.

“It’s a big pot of money,” he said. “It’s a chance to collaborate with a much bigger research community [and gain] access to a broader portfolio of funds.” But the “bureaucracy is overwhelming”, he added, with the projects involving up to 17 overseas research partners.

Australia’s failure to join Horizon Europe would be a “missed opportunity”, according to Chennupati Jagadish, president of the Australian Academy of Science.

He said today’s global challenges required global solutions, and researchers from different countries needed to work together. “International scientific collaboration is a matter of strategic national interest and something Australia cannot do without,” he said.

“Australia’s association with Horizon Europe would also assist in mitigating some of the current geopolitical risk in Australia’s scientific enterprise, and deliver scientific and economic benefits to Australia.” 

Times Higher Education sought comment from the office of federal science minister Ed Husic, which did not respond.

The Labor government came to power with a policy to raise national research and development spending towards 3 per cent of gross domestic product. So far the indicators have gone in the opposite direction, with both public and overall research spending at historic lows.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles