The EU will not tolerate cherry-picking by the UK

UK academics love the ERC, but selective participation in Horizon Europe is unlikely to be on the table, says John Womersley

February 20, 2020
Source: Getty

Right at the end of the UK prime minister’s recent parliamentary statement on British intentions during the next 11 months of negotiations with the European Union comes a brief sentence on which the UK’s research and higher education communities are pinning great hope.

“The UK is ready to consider participation in certain EU programmes,” it reads, “once the EU has agreed the baseline in its 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework, and taking into account the overall value to the UK of doing so.”

Now that the government has taken action on visas for knowledge workers, the highest priority for scientists and universities is UK association to Horizon Europe, the EU’s next seven-year framework programme for research and development, which starts in 2021. However, I think they are at great risk of ending up disappointed.

Although the final numbers are not yet settled, the main features of Horizon Europe are now clear. With a total budget of something like €95 billion (£79 billion), it will once again be built around three “pillars”, with the first one, based around excellence, covering the European Research Council (ERC), Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions and support for research infrastructures. But the second pillar covers a big new portfolio of mission- and challenge-led funding related to delivery of solutions for things like climate, oceans, health and food challenges, as well as enhancing European industrial competitiveness. This pillar will absorb more than half of the total budget. The third pillar, meanwhile, supports industrial innovation through the European Innovation Council and the European Institute of Technology.

This is a substantial shift in priorities from previous framework programmes. The intention is to drive a shift towards challenges and industry. Those are the things that new commission president Ursula von der Leyen has committed to providing for the benefit of Europe’s citizens, and the feeling in Brussels is that European research capacity has now been successfully built up by decades of investing in researchers and facilities: this is the time to put that capacity to use in pursuit of solutions to problems that society finds relevant.

UK universities and scientists have done extremely well in the ERC’s open, peer-review-based funding competitions, regularly receiving far more than the UK’s share of contributions each year. They have also done very well in attracting grant holders from other countries to come and work in the UK. But the ERC is only a small piece of the pie. Over the past weeks, I’ve read many eloquent pleas for the UK to remain part of Horizon Europe – but they have all meant “remain part of the ERC”. None of them has even mentioned the other, much bigger bits of the programme.

This was all very well when research programme funding was already pre-committed as part of the cost of membership of the EU. But now that participation has to be negotiated and paid for separately, it is problematic. The EU is unlikely to allow the UK to receive more from the ERC than it puts in, so the value-for-money argument is going to be much less obvious. Moreover, the Treasury and Number 10 are going to ask, totally legitimately, where the business case is to be part of the second and third pillars.

Where are the strong UK advocates for participation in these challenge-led, industrial competitiveness programmes? Will UK industry benefit – and if not, why should the UK pay? Even many of my European colleagues quietly question Pillars 2 and 3, noting that these are political rather than research priorities, and more about the application of existing knowledge than the generation of more.

Logically, then, the UK would seek partial association to Horizon Europe, with access to Pillar 1 while sitting out Pillars 2 and 3. There’s nothing in principle wrong with that. But I doubt that the commission will accept it. Research commissioner Mariya Gabriel has already warned the UK against “cherry-picking” – can she see what’s coming?

So let’s imagine that the commission stands firm in this position. The UK is then faced with a choice. One option is to commit something like £10 billion to Horizon Europe over seven years, primarily to get back the cherry of £1.7 billion in ERC grants. Or spend that same £1.7 billion on a UK-based replacement programme to support blue-sky research and attract global talent, as outlined by Graeme Reid and Adrian Smith in their November report, and pocket the remaining £8 billion to – just for example – reinforce core research in UK universities, fund a new UK Darpa to promote innovative, challenge-led projects, establish some big new flagship institutes and boost research capacity in the regions.

I’m not a betting man. But I know which way I’d have to bet on this right now.

John Womersley is director-general of the European Spallation Source and was chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council between 2011 and 2016.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

Spend 1.7 billion against spend 10.0 billion for the same return. You won't get many takers for the bet. How many marginal constituencies or new Conservative constituencies in the North will be won or made safer by 1.7 billion? I know which way I'd bet for nothing (or perhaps small) against 1.7 billion.