V-c fears hopes of UK joining Horizon Europe ‘drifting away’

Others suggest government position on joining research programme is unchanged, while Cummings’ view may balance criticism of EU on research with openness to association

January 2, 2020
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The chances of the UK securing participation in the European Union’s next research programme are “drifting away”, one senior vice-chancellor fears, although others suggest that the government position is unchanged and that joining is still an option.

With the Conservatives having secured a significant majority in last month’s general election, some in the sector feel that the mood in government has turned against the idea of paying the EU to join its research programme starting in January 2021, Horizon Europe.

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said that securing participation in Horizon Europe “will be incredibly tough”.

He pointed to the tight timescale for the UK to conduct negotiations on research association with the EU in time for the start of the programme in one year – at the same time that it is conducting much bigger talks on its future trade relationship with the bloc.

The EU has yet to finalise Horizon Europe’s regulations, which will set the terms for association, further delaying the start of formal talks.

“If it’s not done quickly, it won’t be done at all,” Sir Chris said of association. “It seems to me it’s drifting away.”

Sir Chris has previously highlighted that association to the EU’s research programme includes accepting a role for the European Court of Justice in settling disputes over grants or consortia, which he sees as a potential stumbling block given the UK government’s wider determination to end ECJ jurisdiction.

“Although my fellow v-cs and the sector are still putting Horizon Europe as almost top of the asks, it seems to me that…all the assumptions are moving in the opposite direction,” said Sir Chris.

Criticism of the EU’s research programmes aired by Vote Leave during the Brexit referendum campaign might offer an insight into the views of Dominic Cummings, the former Vote Leave campaign director who is now Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser and has become a key influence on science policy.

A 2016 Vote Leave briefing on science and technology claimed that the EU has “too much control and is anti-science”, and that its funding system was “extremely bureaucratic and is based on political considerations, not supporting the best science”.

The briefing offered the suggestion that “if Britain takes back control of the money we send to Brussels and diverts some of it into science, we could make Britain a world leader in crucial fields”, as well as saying that “we could also continue to participate in international scientific collaborations, including the EU’s Horizon programme, just as other non-EU countries do”.

The Conservative manifesto pledged: “We will continue to collaborate internationally and with the EU on scientific research, including Horizon.” The wording stopped short of a definite commitment to join or associate to Horizon Europe, instead opting for the vaguer “collaborate with”.

Chris Skidmore, the universities and science minister, told MPs in October that he expected the UK to join Horizon Europe from its start.

The government’s position has not changed and the option of association is still on the table, some suggest. However, value for money will need to be considered if the UK is to join.

The UK will probably be required to pay the EU a fee of more than €7 billion (£6 billion) over the seven-year span of Horizon Europe to join as an associated country.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: UK hopes of joining EU’s Horizon Europe ‘drifting away’, v-c worries

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