Fears UK could ‘walk away’ from EU research over multibillion fee

Changes to EU plans could deter UK government by making it net contributor to Horizon Europe, UUKi director warns

July 21, 2020
Poles apart the UK government and the EU are ‘distant’ on association payments, and the net contribution could be a ‘deal-breaker’
Source: Getty
Poles apart the UK government and the EU are ‘distant’ on association payments, and the net contribution could be a ‘deal-breaker’

Changes to the European Union’s plans for payments by associated countries into Horizon Europe could mean a multibillion net contribution for the UK, raising a “real risk” that the Westminster government “will walk away” from the research programme, the Universities UK International (UUKi) director has warned.

The fears surround changes to the proposed means of deciding contributions made by non-member states wanting to join Horizon Europe, the seven-year EU research programme starting in January 2021.

The positions of the UK government and the EU are “really far apart” on association payments, giving rise to a “real risk the UK will walk away”, said Vivienne Stern, the UUKi director. The size of the net contribution could be a “deal-breaker”, she warned.

Dame Nancy Rothwell, the University of Manchester vice-chancellor, said last week that she thought it unlikely the UK would gain full association to Horizon Europe because the “costs will be hard to justify” for the UK government against the likely returns in funding.

Not being part of Horizon Europe would mean holders of prestigious European Research Council grants could no longer work full time at UK universities – potentially deterring world-leading research talent from taking up posts in the UK – while UK researchers would have their scope to join international projects funded by the programme radically reduced.

A draft legal text for Horizon Europe rules published by the European Commission in June 2018 proposed a “pay as you go” principle for associated countries, in which their contributions could be revised upwards or downwards if the amount of funding they won from the programme proved to be different from projections.

But the draft text of a free-trade agreement with the UK published by the commission in March this year proposes that when the UK wants to join EU programmes, it should make payments based on the size of the UK’s gross domestic product as a proportion of the EU’s GDP (currently 18 per cent). Under this proposal, there would be no downward correction mechanism allowing for the UK’s contribution to be reduced if its share of funding proved to be lower than expected.

If the UK were to pay 18 per cent of the Horizon Europe budget without a downward correction mechanism, some in the UK sector fear that it would end up paying in significantly more than it received. The UK has won 12.7 per cent of total funding provided by Horizon 2020, the EU’s current research programme, thus far, according to UUKi.

The prospect of being a net contributor to the EU’s research programme after Brexit would likely alarm a Westminster government led by those who fought for the UK to leave the EU.

UUKi modelling on scenarios under the GDP-based system, seen by Times Higher Education, indicates that if the UK were to continue on its present course of winning 12.7 per cent of funding, its net contribution to the Horizon Europe budget would be €3.1 billion (£2.8 billion) over the seven years (UUKi's figures were revised to take account of the reduced budget recently agreed for the programme). But if the UK were to win 8 per cent of funding, its net contribution would rise to €7.6 billion over seven years.

Ms Stern said it was “important we recognise that the value of Horizon [membership] isn’t purely financial”, but is also key in terms of access to European and worldwide research networks.

The UK government is under “huge financial pressure” because of the coronavirus crisis, and this is “not the time [for the EU] to be playing hardball”, she added.

While there are fears that the failure of the UK and the EU to reach a wider trade deal could scupper immediate hopes of Horizon Europe association, some in the UK sector are optimistic that talks on research could restart even after such a scenario. But a dispute over the size of the UK contribution could rule out all future hopes of association.

Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities and professor of modern history at the University of Warwick, said the figure of 12 to 13 per cent for current UK receipts from Horizon 2020 is a level that reflects “four years of uncertainty around Brexit” and is “quite pessimistic” as a prediction for the UK’s Horizon Europe receipts.

A “more realistic figure” would be the level of UK receipts from Horizon 2020 between 2014 and 2016, which, according to Professor Palmowski, was about 15 per cent.

That would “still be a deficit” for the UK, “but not nearly the same kind of deficit”, he added.

A downward correction mechanism for associated countries would introduce “a privilege that other member states simply don’t enjoy”, he noted.

“My own view would be that something needs to happen to ensure that both partners feel there is a fair mechanism,” Professor Palmowski said.

Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said he was “still convinced there is a space for compromise where you can find some ingenious solution to this problem”.

The EU “has the legitimate concern that they want to know, more or less, how much comes into the budget”, so the goal should be for a compromise that would “limit excess contributions from the UK side and limit insecurity on the EU side”, he added.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: UK could ‘walk away’ from Horizon over payment

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Reader's comments (1)

Don't panic! When you walk away from a negotiation it's unlikely you'll get as far as the door before they call you back. Beside which, change may not be a bad as you think.

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