UK Horizon alternative ‘aims to make Brussels pick up the phone’

George Freeman ‘still pushing’ and ‘still hopeful’ on association, but thinks forthcoming plan for UK global science role could be catalyst

January 11, 2023

The Westminster government is “still pushing” and “still hopeful” on associating to the European Union’s Horizon Europe research programme, but forthcoming plans to detail a UK alternative stepping up the nation’s global science role could nudge Brussels to “pick up the phone”, according to the science minister.

George Freeman made the comments in a speech hosted by the thinktank Onward, fleshing out a vision for the UK to be a “science superpower and innovation nation” in a future where science will be “as key to our geopolitical security as our military capabilities”.

Talks on association to Horizon Europe – which offers funding for international collaborations as well as for prestigious European Research Council grants recognising outstanding researchers – have stalled as the European Commission ties the issue to the impasse on resolving the Northern Ireland protocol.

“We never wanted to leave these programmes – we still don’t,” said Mr Freeman. “We are still pushing for that association to be finalised.”

The minister added that he was “in Paris just before Christmas” to discuss the issue and was “still hopeful”.

“I’ve yet to find a member state that doesn’t say, ‘we really want the UK in Horizon’,” said Mr Freeman. “But it’s caught up in the high politics of the bigger post-Brexit relationship.”

He sought to use the speech, which was also streamed online, to send a message to Brussels.

“Let me be very clear to all those watching today that we cannot allow UK research to be benched, great UK researchers and scientists to be benched, spectating on this incredibly exciting period in science and research,” said Mr Freeman.

If the UK “can’t play in the European Cup of science, then we have to go and play in the World Cup of science”, he continued.

The government was working with the sector on the focus of an alternative programme, he said.

This would include a focus on “talent” via better support for researchers at various stages of their careers; funding for “moonshots” in “big opportunities to deploy UK technology much more strategically”; a global pillar covering bilateral relationships with key research economies and multilateral partnerships on global challenges; and investment in infrastructure.

“I meet research leaders virtually every week,” said the minister. “We are working in the coming weeks to define this package. It’s now with the prime minister, the chancellor, the cabinet, the NSTC [National Science and Technology Council], and you’ll be hearing in the coming months and around the budget, a much clearer picture of how we intend to start to deploy this funding if we can’t secure association.”

Asked if there was a choice between Horizon association and taking a new, more global role, Mr Freeman said he would “plead guilty to wanting to have our cake and eat it”.

“I want us to be in a very strong European collaborative ecosystem; and I want us to be able to use our UK and European science, research, technology and innovation for the global good,” he added.

“If we move with bold vision as the prime minister is minded to do, I think what will happen is not only will we allow our science and research to be globally impactful, but also I think the European Union will see that we are committed to doing this. And I think it’s more likely they will pick up the phone and say, ‘Come back in, let’s do the ERC [European Research Council] together,’ and learn from some of the things we are doing.”

In the past, the research sector had advised ministers “don’t give the idea there’s an alternative”, Mr Freeman went on. “I think the mood has changed over the last year. I think increasingly people have said the worst of all worlds is to be benched: neither in nor active outside.”

With Horizon already underway, Mr Freeman was asked about funding allocations and the government’s commitment to ring-fence money allocated for association.

With government Horizon guarantees and support packages, spending was “at something like a billion”, amounting to only “a small under” on what would have been contributed to Horizon under association, he said.

In terms of this funding, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was “looking with the Treasury now at what we could deploy in this next year, two years, the rest of this CSR [comprehensive spending review period], strategically, to both support domestic research and international,” Mr Freeman continued.

“We are determined to honour that ring-fenced commitment…We’re not going to allow monies we would have received through Horizon to be taken off and spent on other areas. It will be committed to UK R&D. The challenge is how and where best.”

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