After years of uncertainty and countless false dawns, the sun is finally rising (again) on UK participation in Horizon Europe.
What it means
Fundamentally, joining Horizon means that researchers across the UK, Europe, and beyond, can benefit from working together on the biggest challenges that the world faces. The benefits of discoveries by researchers working together will be felt by everyone.
The UK joins a growing list of countries beyond the EU that see the value of using this platform as their vehicle for international collaboration. Near neighbours Norway and Israel are already members, New Zealand has joined, and Canada, South Korea and Japan are all in talks. The easier it is for researchers to work together around the world, the better.
We hope one day soon Switzerland can be added to that list again.
How it will feel on the ground
For individual researchers applying for funding, full association will feel much as EU membership did – fully eligible for all European Research Council grants, and able to take on coordination of multilateral collaborations.
The agreement will shortly bring an end to the stop-gap solution of researchers initially applying for Horizon funds, but then having to choose whether to move to another country to take up an ERC award or receive funding from UKRI instead. Some chose the former over the last few years, and the loss of talented colleagues as a result of wider political forces will not easily be forgotten.
But of course it’s not quite the same as being an EU member, even in the very narrow context of Horizon – and nor can it be. The UK will have a seat at the table when it comes to shaping the direction of the programme and full speaking rights, but not the right to vote on decisions. This is to be expected – there will always be a difference between being a member state and an associated country – but fortunately these votes are extremely rare in programme committees, with most decisions taken through discussion and consensus.
Meanwhile, the possibility exists of UK exclusion from certain funding calls on the grounds of security in particularly sensitive areas. But this has yet to be seen, and is expected to be a rarity.
There are all sorts of other details that wonks like me will pore over when the full text is available. Like the fact that in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement the ‘top up’ trigger of 8 per cent needs to be reached in two consecutive years to require extra payments – meaning that theoretically the UK could be a huge net beneficiary in one year, and yet avoid paying more if its net gain fell to 7.9 per cent the following year. If organising such a thing were possible I’m sure someone would be tempted to try – assuming this detail has survived the latest negotiations. It will be interesting to see if or how this has changed in the new agreement.
I’ll also be on the lookout for how the accumulated underspend from the extended delay to association will be used – not least as it will be in the hundreds of millions or even billions. The money is promised to R&D, and we won’t want to see such large sums lost clawed back by the Treasury for other uses as we saw previously. But that’s a question for another day.
And what of the ideas in the Pioneer proposals – worked up as an alternative to Horizon? We may yet see some of those things appear as initiatives in their own right, to go alongside today’s good news – if money for them can be secured. Things like offering global inward and outward fellowships for postdoctoral researchers, upgrading national infrastructure, and expanding the International Science Partnerships Fund. Picking the best of those ideas and arguing for them will be part of the next phase for the community, now we know they won’t be at the expense of the big prize.
Bring me that Horizon
These details are trivial compared with the big picture, and it’s incumbent on the sector to make the most of the opportunity it has now. Researchers can apply for forthcoming calls that will be awarded in 2024, and can help spread the word that the UK is back.
For more than two years, the message has been that UK researchers can’t lead projects and can’t receive ERC grants. It’s going to take a lot of work to undo that domestically and across Europe, with clear and simple messaging. Speedy recovery is in everyone’s interest.
Every organisation that argued hard for Horizon – Wellcome included – should lend a hand in spreading the good news and encouraging applications. And the government and the Commission should pull out all the stops with its communications over the coming months – working closely to make sure that any lingering uncertainty about the status of the UK is stamped out.
Researchers should also stay across the guidance about existing awards, calls they’re in the process of applying to, and funding they’re receiving via the UKRI guarantee.
A sector effort
The essential ingredients of a deal on Horizon were all there as part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement published at Christmas 2020, and I was one of many who celebrated that outcome (in line with Covid restrictions, naturally). But if we’d all known then that it’d be another three years before this would finally get over the line I’m not sure that sector unity on this issue would have held up. Horizon was always worth one more push, and we kept the faith.
Get Horizon Done has been the rallying cry from the whole of the whole research sector across the UK and the EU, with remarkable unity over an extended period.
It’s a great outcome for science, and I intend to savour the moment and I hope you’ll join me. In what can feel a fraught world, good things can and do happen.