Share ‘Plan B’ research funding more fairly than Horizon – paper

Alternative to Horizon Europe should examine why ‘closed clubs’ of elite universities enjoy so much funding success, says Hepi report

September 29, 2022
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The UK’s “Plan B” scheme to replace Horizon Europe should make funding allocations “more inclusive” by encouraging the participation of researchers from “less-resourced” universities, a study has suggested.

Criticising the current “excellence” focus of the European Union’s flagship research scheme, in which funding flows disproportionately to “closed clubs of regular participants”, the paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) suggests that a new domestic alternative should prioritise “support schemes for universities that tend to participate less to mitigate their cumulative disadvantages”, while calling for renewed efforts to anonymise peer review to “reduce or eliminate” bias faced by researchers from these institutions.

According to the paper by EU research funding expert Marco Cavallaro, “about one-third of the funding acquired by UK universities in Horizon 2020 was obtained by only four universities: the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, UCL and Imperial College London”.

In contrast, “former polytechnics collect only about 5 per cent of all UK universities’ participation”, he adds.

The report, published on 29 September, comes amid growing pessimism about the UK’s chances of joining Horizon Europe following a frosty meeting between EU and British officials that led to no progress on the UK’s participation in the €96 billion (£86 billion) seven-year research framework. One EU diplomat in attendance told Times Higher Education that it was “one of the coldest meetings I’ve ever been in”, with the EU continuing to block UK association until trade issues over the Northern Ireland border are settled.

Some £7 billion was set aside in 2021 for either association with Horizon Europe or Plan B, but there are fears that continuing uncertainty could imperil some of this funding.

The Hepi paper also suggests that Plan B, details of which were outlined in July, should give “higher priority to bottom-up calls” for funding – where the research topic and approach is suggested by researchers – rather than the “top-down” approach increasingly favoured by Horizon, in which research bids on suggested topics are invited. “Giving ‘carte blanche’ to applicants may be perceived by some as a risky investment of public funding. However, the Covid pandemic has shown how society can benefit from bottom-up and flexible research,” the paper says.

It also calls for funders to streamline the application process for talent schemes, such as early career or PhD fellowships, by asking applicants to submit a “single short and simple proposal” of no more than 10 pages. This would contrast with the European Research Council, which asks applicants to complete a 10-page pre-proposal, and then a 45-page full proposal, “knowing that about 90 per cent of them will be rejected”.

Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL and a former adviser to the UK government on potential future international research collaboration, welcomed the “timely paper on an issue of great interest and importance”.

“With prospects for association now receding even further, it is important that we debate in more detail the practicalities of Plan B,” said Professor Reid, who called the paper a “helpful contribution to that debate”.

Mr Cavallaro, a public policy doctoral student at the Università della Svizzera italiana in Switzerland, said “full association to Horizon Europe remains the best option, [but] Plan B can be an opportunity to learn from the research funding literature and make more attractive, inclusive and less onerous grant schemes”.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said it was “vital that the uncertainty over Horizon Europe and the alternative Plan B is ended”.

“If full participation in Horizon Europe is not possible despite being the clear preference of the UK research community, then we must make the best of Plan B. This new Hepi research usefully explains how that might be done,” he said, adding that “we cannot afford to dilly-dally any more”.

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