Joining Horizon Europe could take a year, says George Freeman

Science minister says Treasury should release Plan B funding to ensure UK science does not suffer if negotiations take months

March 1, 2023
George Freeman
Source: UK parliament

Science minister George Freeman has warned that it might take another year before the UK is allowed to join Horizon Europe, saying that millions of pounds set aside for Plan B should be released while a deal is hammered out.

Playing down hopes that UK association to the European Union’s flagship research scheme was imminent after a deal on Northern Ireland trade rules was agreed earlier this week, Mr Freeman told an audience in London on 1 March that “very, very high geopolitics is sitting in the prime minister’s in tray” and that a similar deal for Switzerland to re-enter Horizon Europe back in March 2016 had taken almost a year to take effect.

Speaking at a conference on research organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Elsevier, Mr Freeman said he “did not want to be signing something in 11 or 12 months and we lose another year of funding”, referring to the recent decision by the Treasury to claw back £1.6 billion in unused science funding that had been set aside for Horizon Europe in 2022-23.

“We made a commitment to the sector, and we want to honour that commitment,” he added, on promises that UK science would not be financially worse off if it remained outside Horizon Europe.

While the UK was waiting for the European Commission to ratify its membership of Horizon Europe, plans for a domestic alternative, known as Plan B, have been created, and Mr Freeman said he would like to see some of these fellowships, international partnerships and innovation funding schemes put into place.

“Given we developed a powerful programme, I want to spend that money on a surge in support for fellowships and programmes,” said Mr Freeman, who added that he was also “incredibly excited by the opportunities” that Horizon Europe membership would present.

However, Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said she was less gloomy about the timeline for joining Horizon Europe, observing that Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, had appeared “impatient” in her wish for the UK to join Horizon Europe.

The entire Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland trade protocols had taken only “three or four months” to conclude, so revising the UK’s already agreed deal should not take as long, she said.

As Times Higher Education reported, the UK will need to renegotiate its financial contribution to Horizon Europe, which began in February 2021, because it would be joining midway through the programme.

However, Ms von der Leyen told a press conference on 27 January that she expected Horizon Europe talks to “start immediately” after the Northern Ireland deal was concluded.

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