Dismay as Sunak ‘delays Horizon Europe decision again’

Dithering by Downing Street raises concerns that more funding for research will be clawed back by the Treasury

July 19, 2023

Leading scientists have expressed dismay over reports that Rishi Sunak has put off a decision on rejoining Horizon Europe until the autumn.

Hopes that the UK would rejoin the European Union’s €95 billion (£81 billion) flagship research scheme have been raised in recent weeks after a draft deal over the cost of UK membership was agreed by negotiators from London and Brussels.

But the expected sign-off by the UK prime minister did not arrive in Lithuania this month when Mr Sunak met European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at a Nato summit, amid reports from the Politico website that he did not want to be “boxed in” by the leaked details of the Horizon deal. According to the Financial Times, the prime minister is now set to delay a decision on Horizon Europe until after the summer holidays.

Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, told the FT: “This news, if true, will fill the science community with dismay. The basics of the Horizon association deal were put in place two and a half years ago.

“But still we wait, and the damage done by ongoing uncertainty and further potential delay continues.”

Martin Smith, head of policy at the Wellcome Trust, said the latest delay raised the issue of “how unspent money allocated for Horizon will be used in the meantime”, pointing to the £484 million that was reallocated to other science spending via UK Research and Innovation but also the £1.6 billion that was returned to the Treasury after it was unused in 2022-23.

“Science is still owed that £1.6bn – we haven’t forgotten about it. Will need to keep an eye on what happens to underspend this time,” tweeted Mr Smith.

The continued delays on Horizon Europe association are believed to concern the mechanism that would limit the UK’s net contribution to the European scheme. Before Brexit, the UK had always received far more in research grants than the amount it paid into Horizon – including from European Research Council grants – but new rules mean that it can no longer become a net recipient of funds, with Whitehall believed to be concerned about the scale of such contributions.

That has raised concerns in some scientific circles that Mr Sunak’s concerns about Horizon membership are primarily political because the government would not wish to be seen sending taxpayers’ money overseas to support science in European labs.

The continued delay is, however, likely to worry many researchers who had hoped to submit research funding applications to Horizon before a cut-off point in November, when many new EU-wide collaborations also were starting.

Kenny Coventry, professor of psychology at the University of East Anglia, who has held Horizon funding since 2012, told Times Higher Education that a failure to associate before the end of 2023 would be “catastrophic” for UK research.

“It’s taken years for us to build up these research networks, and they’ve waited patiently for us to rejoin properly. But I doubt they will wait another year,” said Professor Coventry, who said the lack of detail over the Horizon alternative Pioneer meant that UK researchers could not contribute to long-term discussions within research collaborations.

“We just want to know whether we start planning for next year and just get on with the science,” he said.

Further delays to Horizon association would also make it harder for UK researchers to win significant sums from the scheme – thereby exacerbating the problem that has vexed Downing Street, warned Anne Corbett, senior associate at LSE Consulting, part of the London School of Economics, whose research has focused on the UK’s links to European research after Brexit.

“You are creating ongoing uncertainties for EU partners, so Horizon grants for UK-led bids fall,” said Dr Corbett, adding that this meant that the “argument for Pioneer gets stronger” because it offers relatively more certainty in funding for universities, although researchers would prefer Horizon Europe.


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Reader's comments (1)

The trouble is that we have a leadership that wants to be popular with everyone. Whatever decision is made, someone will complain as that is part of being in charge.