It’s almost been a complete year now since the UK’s continued membership of the Horizon programme was agreed in December 2020 under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) and yet the UK's membership has yet to be finalised. In the meantime, UK researchers who have applied for funding have been unable to sign grant agreements to receive that funding.
With the UK's future membership of Horizon Europe still up in the air, the UK Government therefore made a welcome announcement last week of a new funding safety net. Under the new scheme, the UK Government has guaranteed funding for the first wave of eligible, successful applicants to Horizon Europe. The scheme has been welcomed by the UK's Russell Group of universities as "an important contingency measure to mitigate the effects of prolonged delays to association and provide reassurance to the UK’s world class researchers".
Describing the scheme as a short term measure, the Government has emphasised its commitment to securing the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. However, the announcement has also been accompanied by an open letter penned by George Freeman MP (Minister for Science, Research & Innovation) in which Mr Freeman makes clear that the Government is actively planning for a scenario in which the UK does not associate to Horizon Europe.
Referring to this 'Plan B' scenario, Mr Freeman reiterates that funding currently earmarked for Horizon association will go to other UK Government-funded R&D programmes instead (including those to support international partnerships).
With a budget of EUR 95-billion, Horizon Europe is the largest transnational research programme in the world. Aside from access to funding however, one of the key benefits of membership of Horizon Europe is the ability for UK researchers to collaborate with talented scientists and innovators across Europe. Mr Freeman's letter acknowledges this but highlights opportunities for collaboration globally (such as with North America and the Indo-Pacific). Whether those global opportunities for collaboration will suffice in a scenario where the UK does not associate to Horizon Europe remains to be seen as at this point, no concrete details of 'Plan B' have been released.
The government did previously develop a set of alternatives plans in 2020 as part of its no-deal Brexit planning. These plans are currently being refreshed but had included plans for a new Discovery Fund which would offer sizeable grants over long periods of time to researchers to pursue discovery-led, ground breaking research and also included a commitment to make funding available to allow UK partners to participate in European schemes open to third countries.
UK researchers have historically played an important role in conducting research funded by the predecessors to Horizon Europe and it is therefore not only UK based researchers who want to see the UK's membership finalised. As we reported last month, representatives from over 1000 universities across Europe have also called for the immediate finalisation of the UK’s association to Horizon Europe.
Whether these latest statements from the UK Government will have any bearing on the process to formalise the UK's association remains to be seen.