PM’s intervention ‘only way to stop’ £1 billion UK research cut

Boris Johnson must rapidly step in after Treasury puts block on extra funding to cover Horizon Europe costs, sector figures warn

March 19, 2021
Downing Street, police

Only the prime minister’s rapid intervention can stop a £1 billion cut hitting the UK research budget next month, as the Treasury appears set on refusing to provide extra funding for the costs of joining the European Union’s research framework, sector figures have warned.

In December, the UK government announced that it would associate to the EU’s Horizon Europe programme as part of its post-Brexit trade deal with the bloc. Since then, there has been silence over how the bill for joining the seven-year programme – estimated within government as likely to be between £800 million and £1 billion in the first year – would be paid.

This week, the research and universities sectors publicly voiced alarm that the Treasury’s funding settlement for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), responsible for research funding, could mean the costs of association having to be funded from existing research budgets.

The Treasury has taken the position on Horizon Europe funding that “you wanted it, you pay for it”, sector sources suggested.

Alarms rang for the sectors after BEIS delivered a £120 million cut to UK Research and Innovation in the amount of aid funding supporting research projects overseas.

Universities UK wrote a rare open letter to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, this week in a bid to persuade him to intervene on Horizon Europe funding. A final decision on BEIS’ funding settlement is needed for the 2021-22 financial year that begins on 6 April.

In a written answer to a parliamentary question this week, science minister Amanda Solloway pointed out that the Treasury’s spending review setting departmental budgets took place in December before association was agreed, adding that “we are continuing to work with HM Treasury on the costs of Horizon Europe”.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said: “My understanding is that this decision will be taken this week, and by the prime minister himself. We really need to try to stop this in its tracks, because next week may be too late.”

Martin Smith, policy and advocacy manager at the Wellcome Trust, agreed. “I think it is down to whether the prime minister intervenes. BEIS and Treasury have been arguing about this for a while,” he said.

There is “a narrow window of opportunity to try to make sure this doesn’t happen”, Mr Smith added. “As things stand, I am very worried.”

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said that its members had been “delighted” by the government’s decision on association, but had “hoped it would have been a real priority for the government to find the additional funding, then announce that by now. That’s why everyone is getting very nervous.”

The costs of association will be decided by a complex formula. The Russell Group estimates that in future years after 2021-22, the association bill “might be closer to £1.82 billion, because we understand the first year is a lower cost”, said Dr Bradshaw.

He continued: “That is a challenge. Where is that money going to come from? If it comes from the existing core budgets of the research councils, for example, and Innovate UK, that is a substantial cut for research and innovation. That doesn’t match what the government has been saying very positively about the role of science and technology [in the UK’s future].”

Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, said: “There is a case for providing separate money – not ‘new money’ – to cover the cost of Horizon. The separate money would simply continue paying the EU for activities that are continuing.” 

UUK voiced its alarm on Horizon Europe funding on the same day the government, which has said that it will increase research spending to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product by 2027, put the aim of becoming a “science superpower” at the heart of its Integrated Review framing post-Brexit defence and foreign policy.

Ms Stern said: “What we need to try to get across [to all parts of government] is you need consistent, stable research funding in order to have the capacity in the [research] system to do the other exciting things you want to do to achieve science superpower status.”

She added that if that research funding stops, even temporarily, researchers “will lose their jobs and those people will go off and do other things. And then when the funding is restored, which we assume it will be with the 2.4 per cent ambition, you’ve lost capacity forever.”

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Reader's comments (2)

As usual the fate of a successful sector of the UK economy depends on the whims of the Brexititeer in Chief Boris Johnson.