UK government’s £1.6 billion Horizon clawback ‘breaks R&D pledge’

Unused funds earmarked for UK association to the European Union’s research programme returned to Treasury

February 21, 2023
Sign at HM Treasury
Source: iStock

The UK government has been accused of reversing pledges to protect research spending, after £1.6 billion of unused funds earmarked for association to the European Union’s research programme was returned to the Treasury.

The central government supply estimates for 2022-23 show “surrender of unused funding for Horizon and Euratom association” by the former Department for Business, Energy and Industry, with one sum of £1.6 billion and another of £17 million.

The UK government earmarked funding to associate to Horizon Europe, which began in February 2021, or to create a domestic alternative research scheme. But that has been stalled by the UK-EU impasse on the Northern Ireland protocol, after Brussels tied association to a resolution of the wider dispute.

The figures were highlighted by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE).

“The government has repeatedly stated that R&D budgets would be protected and that the money allocated for association to Horizon Europe would be spent on R&D,” said Sarah Main, executive director of CaSE.

“The government’s reversal of this position with today’s withdrawal of £1.6 billion for R&D undermines the prime minister’s assertions about the importance of science and innovation to the UK’s future and the creation, only this month, of a new department to pursue this agenda. 

“The government must follow through its ambition for science and innovation with coordinated action and investment across government, not reversals and false starts.”

Professor Main urged Rishi Sunak to “now set out how he plans to mitigate this loss and put science and engineering at the heart of the UK’s future”.

Sir Adrian Smith, the Royal Society president, said: “The failure of all sides to secure the UK’s association to the EU’s research programmes has now cost UK science £1.6 billion. That comes on top of the talented researchers who have left the UK in order to carry on their collaborative work. How does this sit with the government’s stated mission to have the UK as a science superpower?

“The Treasury must now ensure that this money is reinvested in research in the coming years.”

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “Regardless of where the funding is allocated for accounting purposes, what is important is for the government to deliver on its commitment to increase investment in UK research and innovation significantly, as set out in the spending review. This includes the funding needed for the UK’s full association to Horizon Europe or an ambitious alternative that will ensure we remain a global leader in R&D.

“The spending review committed to invest £16.1 billion on R&D in this financial year and it is important that this plan continues to be met.”

He added: “With the end of the UK’s Horizon guarantee approaching fast, an extension beyond the end of March is urgently required if association cannot be finalised before then. The guarantee has helped reassure researchers, has ensured we can access European funding calls and has kept the window for association open.” 

A government spokesman said it “has been pushing the EU for two years to implement our association with EU R&D programmes, as agreed under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement”.

He added: “Funding remains available to finalise association with EU programmes, but we have been clear that we will only pay for the periods of association. In the event we do not associate, UK researchers and businesses will receive at least as much money as they would have done from Horizon over the spending review period…The Horizon guarantee is still in place and so far the government has provided £645 million to date via UKRI through the guarantee, and £684 million of direct funding to UK science, fusion and Earth observation.”

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Reader's comments (1)

You mean anyone trusts any politician to do what they have said they would?