A glimpse of post Horizon research partnerships

The launch of the International Science Partnerships Fund is an important milestone in post Horizon global research deals

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

This week saw significant press coverage of Science Minister George Freeman’s launch of the International Science Partnerships Fund.

According to BEIS the fund will

support and fund UK scientists and innovators to work with peers around the world on some of the most pressing issues facing our world.

In a speech in Tokyo Freeman was keen to stress that this is not an alternative to Horizon but part of the government’s wider priorities to invest in R&D and collaborate with international counterparts. To achieve these aims the fund will involve collaboration, investment, and strengthening the UK’s global leadership on global research challenges. So far so sensible.

New funding for research, particularly within an international framework post Horizon, is always going to be warmly welcomed by the sector. This site has devoted many virtual column inches to highlighting post Horizon plans while maintaining that the current interregnum is destabilising to universities and the wider research community. UKRI were kind enough to let us peek behind the curtain on the enormous amount of work going on to secure post Horizon business relationships.

News of the fund has been widely welcomed but the bigger story is what this tells us about post Horizon research partnerships

New money meets old rope

This new fund has a similar structure to much of the existing research funding apparatus. In February 2022 BEIS announced the cessation of the Fund for International Collaboration, the Newton Fund, and the Global Challenges Fund in their current formats. In their pamphlet on the Fund for International Collaboration (not to be confused with the new International Science Partnerships Fund) UKRI highlighted that work included activities like supporting research to tackle degenerative conditions through the UK-Japan Regenerative Medicine Initiative. Freeman has clearly been well briefed on this work. In his speech in Tokyo he highlighted that medicine collaborations are six and a half times higher quality than the global average (data taken from UK Science and Innovation Network Country Snapshot: Japan).

BEIS is keen to stress that this is a “new fund” but whether this fund is new money is a different question. The details of the fund are to be announced in detail in the new year, but it is worth noting that the UKRI Fund for International Collaboration amounted to £160m while this new fund comes in at £119m. This funding is described as being “initial” and therefore we might expect this will be a precursor to a larger scheme. Although this fund was launched in Japan it is worth stressing that it is not intended exclusively for Japan-UK research collaborations.

Alongside the wider cuts to ODA, the funding that will be sucked up in post Horizon infrastructure development, and the cost of diverting funding to new partnership development outside of Horizon, it is hard to argue that the UK’s place as a R&D superpower is growing not diminishing. The core problem of individual initiatives is that they won’t coalesce into a strategic approach unless there is clarity of vision about what the overall R&D ecosystem will look like in years to come. Without clarity on Horizon there is no clarity on what it will look like months from now.

Tying myself in knots

It could of course be that I’m wrong. The response to the announcement has been largely positive elsewhere; particularly at the news of the release of funding that was not expected. It’s just that I can’t shake a nagging feeling that several months after the self imposed deadline for a decision on Horizon association, a deadline imposed by Freeman at a select committee appearance, that there isn’t yet a clear explanation of how the loss of over £7bn of funding received through Horizon 2020 will be replaced.

We know there is significant work going on in the background on business planning, new frameworks, and the like, but this announcement has the feeling of those post Brexit trade deals that when you scratch the surface are worse than the deal we already had.

The funding figure announced here, although only a first step, is not of the scale that will secure a step change in international research relationships. According to the latest snapshot the total combined R&D expenditure of the UK and Japan is around £167bn, of which Japan accounts for nearly £130bn. The UK is Japan’s 4th biggest collaborator on scientific research however Japan is only the UK’s 14th biggest collaborator on scientific research. There is therefore both an established relationship and room to develop a bigger relationship. If Japan is going to be a post Horizon flagship collaborator this is both an unusual way to announce it as such, and a relatively low level of investment.

The cumulative impact of the piecemeal announcement of funding is to slowly reveal a plan of what the future may look like. In every speech from Ministers, every select committee appearance, and every new funding announcement, the wider research community is continually reminded that Horizon association remains the first option. Under which circumstances it is no longer the first option, the speed at which new plans can be deployed, the role of universities and businesses in developing new agreements, and the precise funding and staffing infrastructures to make this vision a reality, are still opaque.

It is not that all new funds and partnerships are inherently bad because they are not Horizon. It would be myopic and pointless to mourn for an arrangement that is retreating into the rear view mirror while averting our eyes from the road ahead. It is that without a clear view of how we practically get to a post Horizon future every fund feels like a fragment of an overall picture which very few people can see.

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