Ministers release £484 million to mitigate Horizon ‘uncertainty’

Westminster government provides £30 million for ‘talent and stabilisation fund’ and pumps extra £100 million of quality-related support into English universities

November 21, 2022
George Freeman
Source: UK parliament

English universities will receive an extra £100 million in quality-related (QR) research funding as part of a science support package worth almost £500 million, designed to mitigate the impact of losing access to European programmes.

In a written statement to the House of Commons published on 21 November, science minister George Freeman said the Westminster government would provide £484 million for research and innovation, which will include £200 million for UK research infrastructure, £42.1 million for nuclear fusion energy and £84 million for plasma physics research as part of the Joint European Torus (JET) Operations, which is based at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire.

Some £100 million in QR funding for English universities decided by the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework would also be made available, with additional funding due to come from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Another £30 million was also provided for the “talent and stabilisation fund”, a formula-driven fund linked to research excellence that is designed to support universities that disproportionately miss out on European Union cash, following the UK’s exclusion from Horizon Europe. That suggests that some of the funds may have been released from the £2.5 billion set aside for Horizon, or a domestic Plan B, due to be spent between 2021 and 2023.

It follows confirmation in last week’s autumn statement that the government will “protect the entire research budget” and proceed with plans to increase it to £20 billion by 2024.

Mr Freeman, who returned to the science portfolio last month three months after he resigned, said the package was important because “ongoing uncertainty over access to EU programmes (Horizon, Copernicus, Euratom R&T and Fusion for Energy) is placing increasing pressure on UK universities and research organisations, as well as causing significant issues for the UK’s fusion and Earth observation sectors”.

“These investments are UK-wide and will provide targeted support during this time of uncertainty,” continued Mr Freeman, who said they “aim to support staff retention and local talent strategies at eligible universities and research organisations, ensure the UK’s labs remain world class and at the cutting edge of R&D and offer universities and research organisations the discretion to apply the funding in ways that best suit their local needs.

“Furthermore they will stimulate and accelerate the growth of the UK’s fusion industry, delivering a thriving UK fusion ecosystem and strengthening the UK’s position as leaders in the future global fusion market,” he said.

The government will “shortly be announcing new investment and projects to boost the Earth observation community and mitigate the challenges caused by the delays to association to Copernicus”, he added of the UK’s continued exclusion from EU’s Earth observation scheme,

Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, welcomed the measures, stating the “funds are intended to mitigate the effect of the ongoing impasse in negotiations on association to European research programmes, and it appears likely the government have redeployed some of the funds set aside for association for this purpose”.

“We welcome measures to counteract uncertainty, including those aimed at retaining talent in the UK. However, the best outcome would be finalising an association deal [to Horizon Europe],” she added.

Linda Partridge, vice-president of the Royal Society, said the announcement “shows the government’s commitment to putting science at the heart of plans for increasing productivity and driving economic growth.

“The ongoing failure to associate to Horizon Europe remains damaging to UK science, and the best solution remains securing rapid association. In the meantime, the funding announced today is a welcome intervention to help protect and stabilise the science sector,” she added.

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