UK urged to signal participation in Horizon Europe successor

Stirling principal warns against repeat of post-Brexit inclusion but concedes ministers will need to see details of next framework programme

April 12, 2024
European Union flags outside European Commission building at Berlaymont in Brussels, Belgium
Source: iStock/sharrocks

The UK government should announce its intention to associate to the European Union’s next research funding programme “as early as possible”, despite uncertainty over the scheme’s exact form, according to a sector leader.

Speaking at the annual conference of the European University Association (EUA), Sir Gerry McCormac, principal of the University of Stirling, said that the UK sector could not afford a repeat of its long post-Brexit absence from the current framework programme, Horizon Europe.

And he urged the EUA to push for urgent clarification of the details of the next programme, currently known as FP10, particularly the specific regulations concerning associated countries.

Despite rejoining Horizon Europe from the start of this year, the UK was still suffering the impacts of its two-year absence, Sir Gerry told the event in Swansea. “Because we’ve been outside of the Horizon programme for a period of time, many of our young researchers haven’t had the opportunity to engage,” he said.

Warning against a repeat of this for FP10, which is due to get under way in 2028, Sir Gerry said that UK universities need “to persuade the government to announce as early as possible that we will align with and engage in FP10”.

However, he added: “Critical to that is the government seeing what the rules will be, what we will be restricted from.”

“Until we know exactly what FP10 will look like, what the rules are, it will be very difficult for the government to sign up,” Sir Gerry continued. Understanding the specifics of the new programme, he continued, would give universities “the opportunity to better persuade the government to be involved”.

The EUA set outs its vision for FP10 in a recent publication, with the promotion of “the active involvement of associated countries” among the umbrella body’s recommendations. Greater emphasis on this point, Sir Gerry said, was crucial for UK institutions.

Restrictions concerning associated countries’ participation in dual-use research, Sir Gerry said, could be of particular concern. For instance, it would be “detrimental” for the UK to be excluded from research concerning quantum technologies or artificial intelligence, areas in which it can offer expertise, he argued.

The UK’s 2020 departure from the Erasmus+ student mobility scheme was a “dreadful situation” for the country’s universities, Sir Gerry added. Last year, a report from the House of Lords recommended that the UK consider rejoining the scheme, noting that although British students could still study abroad through the Turing scheme, a replacement for Erasmus+, the programme did not allow for a reciprocal flow of European students into the UK.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak confirmed the UK’s return to Horizon Europe last September, announcing a “bespoke deal” through which the country will be a fully associated member until the programme concludes in 2027.

At the EUA conference, Sir Gerry suggested that the upcoming UK general election, which Mr Sunak has said is likely to occur “in the second half” of 2024, could influence the UK’s prospective association to FP10. “Politics in the UK continue to be quite divisive,” he said.

Asked what he’d say to British politicians, Sir Gerry replied: “Do all you can to remove obstacles from collaboration and working on excellent research.”

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