Stakeholders have welcomed new contingency plans set out by the UK government to combat against funding gaps should it be refused association to Horizon Europe.
But association to the European Commission’s key research funding program remains “by far the best outcome”, they say.
The measures include multiple uplifts: these will be directed at existing UK talent schemes, innovation funding and businesses – particularly SMEs – and international innovation schemes to support business collaborations.
They also include the continually operational UK Guarantee scheme, funding for research institutions most affected by the loss of talent funding from Horizon Europe, and continued third country participation in the scheme.
“Although association to Horizon Europe is still by far the best outcome for protecting the UK’s position as a Science Superpower, the ongoing delay in confirming UK association is very damaging for university research and innovation,” said president of Universities UK, Steve West.
“[The measures] provide welcome transparency around government contingency plans, especially for short-term stability and safeguarding future collaboration with EU partners,” he affirmed.
The Russell Group, the UK’s body representing top research universities, wrote a letter to European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, saying that science and research could be the “biggest losers” from the Northern Ireland protocol discussion delays – and are “too important to be used as part of a negotiation”.
“Without the UK’s full association [in Horizon Europe], the program will become less competitive, with knock-on impacts for the excellence and prestige of EU grants.
“There are serious political issues at play that must be resolved in a mutually beneficial way, however, you have the ability to ensure negotiations continue to take place while the UK participates in Horizon Europe,” said Russell Group CEO Tim Bradshaw.
The measures announced on July 20 set out, according to the UK government, a “preliminary vision” for a long term alternative to Horizon – should it be needed.
“We would welcome clarity on what an alternative system might look like if the UK is unable to associate with Horizon Europe”
“It will focus on our four main themes to complement our existing R&D investments: Talent, End to End Innovation, Global Collaboration and investments in the R&D system,” the announcement read.
There is no current set date for the establishment of this new long-term program, but the government is reportedly “already in conversation” with researchers and businesses to make final preparations.
The “transitional” measures set out by the government for now will ensure there is no break in funding for the R&D sector at large, and allow researchers and business to continue engaging in funding opportunities.
“We would welcome clarity on what an alternative system might look like if the UK is unable to associate to Horizon Europe. The document only hints at, rather than delivers, a new alternative vision for R&D activity,” said chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business, Joe Marshall.
“There remain risks to the long-term stability of support which could lead to the diminution of a key national asset, the UK research system,” he added.
UUK also concurred with the NCUB’s need for urgency.
“We now require more precise information on the budget and timeline for implementing these plans. Universities want to work closely with the government to shape long-term alternatives to Horizon Europe if association falls through. Time is pressing and we therefore ask politicians to continue to push hard for association as a matter of extreme urgency,” said West.
Despite the new measures and the idea that a long-term program could be created, the Russell Group also stressed that the main matter at hand was resolving the current political issues blocking the UK’s full association with Horizon Europe – such as the impasse on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“Scientists cannot control the outcome of debates over the protocol. Yet science and the solutions it can provide to challenges like net zero and public health will be the ones that suffer,” said Bradshaw
“The government has made clear that full association remains its top priority, however the publication of these plans mean walking away from Horizon has become a step closer, and the time left to resolve this is growing short,” he added.