Policy experts ‘encouraged’ by UK stance on Horizon Europe

Academics say they are relieved that the government will seek to participate in EU research programme, but danger of full package of agreements collapsing is ‘a real scenario’

March 2, 2020
Source: Alamy

Science policy experts are cautiously optimistic about the UK’s stance on negotiations with the European Union around research, but concerns remain around the tight timescale for agreements.

The UK government published its strategy for negotiations with the EU on its future wider relationship with the bloc on 27 February, stating that it will “consider a relationship in line with non-EU member state participation” with Horizon Europe, the EU’s incoming research programme.

A government source told Times Higher Education that the negotiating mandate “is for full association to Horizon Europe”, but this could not be written in the document because the association articles have not yet been agreed.

Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, said that while the UK sector should “feel a sense of relief that we’ve passed through this gateway in a good, constructive place”, it remains to be seen what will happen in the negotiations.

“At a high level, at least, there’s clear intent on both sides to reach some form of agreement on UK participation in future European programmes…It demonstrates that the government has been listening to and influenced by views from the research and innovation community,” he said.

Professor Reid added that he was “not too hung up on the precise wording in the two [government] documents because these are starting points for a negotiation”.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield and director of the Research on Research Institute, said he was “a bit surprised” that the government documents included little detail on how the UK would approach the various options for participation in Horizon Europe. However, he said, government sources “seem quite optimistic about the prospect of reaching a swift agreement”.

“There has been concern that it would be difficult to agree the Horizon Europe component as separate from the wider EU-UK agreement, but sources in government that I’ve spoken to are suggesting that, in a sense, that’s a false dichotomy. You can agree the research and innovation piece of the jigsaw, lay that to one side while other aspects are being agreed, and then pull it back in when you present publicly the full package of agreements,” he said. “The only real danger is if the whole package delays and collapses. That remains a worry and must still be a real scenario.”

Professor Wilsdon added that a UK agreement is “made more complicated” by the fact that EU member states have yet to finalise the potential models of association to Horizon Europe for third countries.

The UK’s transition agreement with the EU is scheduled to last until 31 December, and the Horizon Europe programme starts on 1 January 2021.

Question marks remain, however, over how much the UK would be willing to pay to participate in Horizon Europe.

During last year’s general election campaign, Boris Johnson pledged to double research and development funding to £18 billion by 2025.

Professor Wilsdon said that if the government was “serious” about this investment, it should be “entirely feasible to buy into any range of Horizon Europe programmes and still have a huge amount of additional investment to make into the domestic system as well”.

The government’s negotiating document also says the UK will “consider options for participation in elements of Erasmus+ [the EU’s student and staff mobility programme] on a time-limited basis, provided the terms are in the UK’s interests”.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, questioned whether this meant the government was interested only in the student exchange element of the programme and would not participate in the “European universities” initiative.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: UK stance on Horizon Europe cheers experts

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