Extra research cash to fund UK’s Horizon Europe participation

Cost of associating to EU programme coming from BEIS budget, but £250 million injection topped up from other sources

April 1, 2021
UK houses of parliament
Source: iStock

The UK has announced additional research funding which should cover the £1 billion-plus cost of the country’s continued participation in Horizon Europe.

The Westminster government said that it would inject an additional £250 million into the research budget for 2021-22, with the balance of the association fee for the European Union programme coming from unallocated funds in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The announcement on 1 April represents a significant victory for sector lobbying efforts and averts catastrophic cuts to budgets managed by UK Research and Innovation after the Treasury apparently took the view that if scientists wanted to stay part of European funding programmes after Brexit, they should foot the bill. The cost of participation had traditionally been met from the UK’s overall contribution to the EU.

BEIS said that £400 million at the spending review earmarked for government priorities and science capability would be used to help pay for Horizon association. Based on an estimate of grants that UK scientists will win from the programme – including the prestigious European Research Council – overall public funding for science should increase year-on-year in 2021-22, the department said.

As part of the announcement, BEIS also set the total research and development budget for 2021-22 at £14.9 billion, which was regarded as a significant step for the UK on the way to the Conservative administration’s target of investing £22 billion annually by 2024-25.

Further significant increases will be needed to keep up with the cost of participating in Horizon, which is likely to increase towards £2 billion as the seven-year programme, which started in January, develops. The UK’s contributions will be linked to the amount that its researchers win in grants.

BEIS said that it would now be confirming the 2021-22 budget for UKRI – the umbrella body for the country’s research councils – “as quickly as possible”.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, described the announcement as “genuinely good news – as much as one could hope for at this stage in the spending game”.

Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, said that she was “very pleased that the government has averted threats to UK science and research”.

“Given current pressures on public finances this is a significant affirmation of the government’s belief in research, recognising the pivotal role it plays in the UK’s current and future prosperity, and ensuring UK universities will remain at the forefront of efforts to address the most pressing global challenges,” Professor Buckingham said.

But Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said that the BEIS announcement was “very opaque” and that it was unclear how the cost of participating in Horizon Europe related to the target to spend 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development by 2027.

“There remain significant questions to be answered which we will urgently seek to clarify with BEIS,” Sir Adrian said.

BEIS said that the extra £250 million would be on top of the £400 million annual increase in funding for UKRI and the national academies announced in last year’s spending review.

It also comes as the UK hands an £800 million budget to its new “high-risk, high-reward” research funder, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency.

But scholars are still reeling from a sudden cut of nearly £300 million to overseas research grants funded by the UK’s foreign aid budget, which is forcing the cancellation of many awards, significant reductions to others, and an embargo on new projects.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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