Leaders fear £1 billion-plus cut to fund UK Horizon association

Universities UK and Wellcome Trust express mounting fears about where funding to join European Union research programme will come from

March 16, 2021
Downing Street, science funding, policy, association to Horizon Europe
Source: iStock

Universities UK (UUK) and the Wellcome Trust have strongly warned the UK government against finding the money to pay for association to the Horizon Europe programme through a cut in excess of £1 billion to existing research budgets.

As the government put the drive to be a “science superpower” at the heart of its integrated review of defence and foreign policy, Wellcome director Sir Jeremy Farrar said there was a “growing gulf between rhetoric and reality in the government support for science”.

The government’s lack of clarity on how it will fund the costs of UK association to Horizon Europe has led to fears that the money will come from existing budgets. That comes on top of a warning from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) that it may have to cancel most of the grants it supported using money from the country’s aid budget, after government cuts left it facing a massive shortfall.

It adds to fears that the government may backslide on its pledge to raise research and development investment to 2.7 per cent of gross domestic product by 2027, as it seeks to find savings in the wake of the pandemic.

In a letter to prime minister Boris Johnson, UUK president Julia Buckingham says the organisation is “increasingly alarmed by reports that the Treasury has not made funding available to support the UK’s association to Horizon Europe”.

She warns that “if this position is maintained” and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy “is required to fund the costs of participation out of the existing science budget, it will amount to an effective cut of something in excess of £1 billion”.

“This would be roughly equivalent to the cost of funding the entire Medical Research Council and Science and Technology Facilities Council combined, which is deeply concerning,” Professor Buckingham continues, also highlighting the UKRI cuts to international projects.

“In my view these cuts would represent a grave strategic error, undermining the capacity of UK science and research in a manner which could fundamentally weaken the system in the long term,” she says.

A £1 billion reduction in funding “would be equivalent to cutting more than 18,000 full-time academic research posts – distributed across all parts and all four nations of the UK – and lead to a further reduction of up to £1.6 billion in private R&D investment which would have been stimulated by public investment”, Professor Buckingham warns.

“The decision would also weaken the UK’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign direct investment in research, and will undermine the credibility of the government’s expressed ambitions to provide global scientific leadership, set out in today’s integrated review,” she adds.

Sir Jeremy said: “The integrated review is full of fantastic and achievable ambitions, but the words are meaningless if they’re not backed up with funding.”

He added that “we can’t just will ourselves into being a science superpower – it takes sustained investment”. 

Sir Jeremy continued: “Other countries are planning to bounce back from Covid-19 with massive investments in R&D. All around the world our counterparts and competitors are spending more than we are on science and innovation. 

“But the UK has just cut one critical international research budget, and there’s no clarity on where over £1 billion of expected funding for the key Horizon Europe programme is coming from.”

Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said the integrated review “makes clear the government’s support for renewed UK-EU collaboration and the importance of Horizon Europe as a framework for that collaboration. Yet funds to pay the cost for the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe have not been forthcoming and there is concern that it will be taken from the existing science budget.”

She added: “This would necessitate profound cuts across UK research and innovation activity and would be a significant backward step for the prime minister’s aspirations for this country to remain a scientific superpower.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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