It will be tempting to look back years from now and conclude that the UK would, in the end, always end up associating to Horizon Europe, the world’s largest research framework.
It is an appealing argument because so many of the UK’s research, innovation, and security, aspirations rely on a close partnership with a thriving Europe. Economically the UK is too small, geographically too remote, and in the end too pragmatic, to have blown apart its own research ecosystem on ever more tortured debates about rebate mechanisms.
That the UK nearly did not join the world’s largest research programme would of course have been a very bad thing for science. But anyone who has followed politics with even a small amount of interest will know that there have been lots of decisions made on the UK’s relationship with Europe that defy economic gravity.
On one side of the scale the research community almost uniformly made the case that the UK needed to be part of Horizon. Economically, the government has rarely tried to argue an alternative could be cheaper and it’s likely lots of funding would have been wasted on lots of new bureaucracy that the government is trying to get rid of anyway. But, despite all of this, Horizon association at one point seemed to be slipping away.
In one select committee meeting science minister George Freeman said he was waiting by the phone for a call from his European colleagues. The press were briefed that Rishi Sunak was concerned about its value. Paul Nurse made the case for association in his review of the research ecosystem, and in a select committee appearance. Even right up until a couple of days before association Freeman advocated launching elements of the UK’s Horizon alternative, Pioneer, as a tactic to put pressure on the EU.
In the end association hinged on the UK negotiating a closer relationship with the EU. The first major stumbling block was that the European Commission would not consider association until the threat of a hard border in Northern Ireland was reduced. This was resolved to the commission’s satisfaction through the Windsor framework. Secondly, the UK had to be satisfied the scheme represented good value for money.
To have associated with Horizon is to have seen a politics where in the end pragmatism won out. Association is a tacit acknowledgement that Britain’s global science ambitions are tied to a closer relationship with the European Union. It is in this context that researchers, sector bodies, think tanks, universities, and sympathetic ministers deserve praise in defying political gravity toward a closer relationship with Europe.
At its heart the last few years have been about how the UK sees itself in the world. There is the basis of the Pioneer plan that would have seen ministers fly from country to country building up bespoke research deals while being a third country in Horizon. There is the old relationship with Europe as a member state as both a player and rule maker in Horizon. The compromise agreed on Horizon will only work most effectively for the UK if it can realise its R&D ambitions both in and outside of Europe.
This is because the UK’s association to Horizon is fundamentally different from the participation of its EU counterparts. Under the previous iteration of Horizon the UK received around 12 per cent of the overall programme funding amounting to over €7 billion. It now cannot make the rules about Horizon and its financial benefits are capped.
In a Linkedin Q&A science minister George Freeman responded to most questions put to him with a plea of urgency for the UK officials, EU officials, and universities, to quickly get to work on bidding for Horizon programmes. Joining a scheme midway through leaves a smaller window of opportunity for winning the greatest proportion of funding rendered even smaller by the need for universities to re-engage academics and professional services staff in bidding for Horizon funding.
Aside from his usual energetic approach toward science the urgency is also because of the rebate mechanism. The terms of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) stated that if the UK joined Horizon it could never receive more than eight per cent more than it put in, and if it received 12 per cent less than its contribution it would be discussed at a special meeting of the Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes. In a new agreement secured as part of the negotiations there will now be a “correction mechanism” if the UK receives 16 per cent less than it put in.
Another key concession is that the UK will not pay for association until 1 January 2024. Again looking through Freeman’s fandango over on Linkedin, funding calls in 2023 will still rely on UK transitional funding. This means that UK universities, and the government, have a three month runway to start redeploying capacity, brokering partnerships, and preparing to win funding, before the payment period begins.
A new dawn
If the government can support the sector to use these three months to help make up for lost time it has the best chance of maximising the return on its investment. It is also encouraging that Freeman has stated that any savings as a result of Horizon association will be used to fund domestic R&D ambitions. Some of the proposals in Pioneer like addressing the chronic shortage of lab space would be complementary to winning larger value and volume of international funds.
The journey over the horizon begins today with joy, relief, and a big breath out that the UK is once again participating in Horizon Europe. As Paul Nurse said at his appearance at the Science and Technology Committee:
The almost universal message is that association with Horizon is crucial for the success of UK science and, therefore, the future of our country.
And that message continues today. As time goes by there will be questions on whether the additional rebate was worth not participating for so long, whether the rebate level is set too high or too low, and of course it won’t be too long before the sun rises on the negotiations for association to the next Horizon programme. However, if UK universities are quickly able to capture new funds, build and rebuild partnerships, and finally feel some certainty about what they can and cannot do, these debates will quickly recede into the distance.