Horizon Europe association hopefuls ‘out of time’ for 2021 start

UK and Switzerland risk missing out on beginning of €100 billion (£86 billion) programme, alongside potential newcomers Australia and Canada

October 30, 2019

Fears are growing that nations hoping to associate to the European Union’s next research programme, ranging from the UK to Australia, will be unable to join in time for its start – but the UK’s science minister insists that a damaging break can be averted.

An expanded range of non-EU member states – or, in the case of the UK, a probably soon-to-be non-member state – are hoping to join Horizon Europe as associated countries when the programme starts, currently scheduled for January 2021.

Major research powers such as Switzerland, which has joined EU research programmes previously, could potentially be accompanied by new associated nations including Australia and Canada. But delays over the EU agreeing its multiannual financial framework long-term budget mean there has been no agreement yet on the Horizon Europe budget, and thus no agreement yet on its association rules. Some also believe that the delay in the UK agreeing a Brexit deal is holding up the process.

Chris Skidmore, the universities and science minister, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee on 21 October that association talks were unlikely to begin until the second quarter of 2020.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said the European Commission and the Competitiveness Council – the group of national research ministers that will have a say on association rules – “clearly do not want to discuss” the association rules “before it is clear if Switzerland signs the new EU-Swiss framework agreement and the UK the UK-EU withdrawal agreement”.

Whether or not the UK and Switzerland become “third countries” to the EU will affect how the bloc will conceive association, he argued.

Once the association rules have been agreed within the EU, each nation hoping to associate must conduct its own individual negotiations with the EU.

“Time is really running out and it is already clear that no country [hoping to associate] will be there at the start of the programme,” Professor Deketelaere said.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said: “There is a real danger that the longer this uncertainty continues, the higher the risk that we miss the start of the next framework programme…If we are not in at the start of the programme we will seriously lose out.”

She added: “If we miss the start of the programme the result could be loss of significant research income, losing our leadership role in key collaborative projects and loss of key staff – especially if there is no national alternative in place.”

Times Higher Education asked Mr Skidmore if the timescale was now too tight for the UK to join the programme for its start in January 2021.

“I don’t think so,” he replied, adding that the regulations for Horizon 2020, the EU’s current research programme, were finalised “right at the end but it still allowed for participation for associated countries from the beginning of the programme”.

Mr Skidmore said he “will make sure we maintain all lines of communication into our European partners, whether it’s the Commission, [or] whether it’s my fellow European research ministers. Obviously, I’ll be speaking to them [research ministers] closely as we move towards the ministerial meeting in November, which is key as well.”

The minister said he was “very keen for the financial framework to be resolved and just get on with being involved [in the programme] for the future”.

He added that the UK would be “keen to explore the value for money case and to be able to look at the association. But we need to know what the association articles look like as well.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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