If we’re going to be a science superpower let’s do Horizon and Pioneer

James Coe wonders whether we can have our cake and eat it when it comes to science policy and associate to Horizon and pursue Plan B

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

Across 49 pacey pages Pioneer global science for global good sets out a “bold and ambitious” alternative to Horizon Europe.

And it is worth saying up front that it is both bold and ambitious. If we think back to the Nurse review his big lament about UK research is that governments keep changing their priorities which then make consistent policy development impossible. Pioneer takes a leap over this trap and instead clearly sets out how £14.6bn of funding earmarked for Horizon will be spent by 2027/28.

The spending commitments are pretty straightforward. There is some funding for people with new studentships, doctorates, fellowships, and professorships. There is some funding to encourage collaboration between business, international partners, and universities, aligned to existing policies like the Innovation Strategy. There is funding for Horizon adjacent international partnerships a bit like the model with Japan. And finally, at long last, there is infrastructure funding for things like new lab space. These four streams are underpinned by proposals to expand existing funding streams like QR (not sure what Nurse would say about this).

A brave old world

Pioneer works because it is coherent with both existing funding routes and wider government policies. In a sentence, the plan is to expand the things that already work and fund Horizon alternatives where necessary.

While the policy prescriptions are straightforward they are not unambitious. It is not so much a Plan B as it is the clearest articulation of how all the government’s ambitions, policies, and funding streams can come together into something coherent. Horizon is still, and on balance in my view rightly, Plan A. However, if the UK is going to be a science superpower it is going to need the best of both schemes.

It has always been hard to grasp exactly what being a science superpower means. It is lots of things about competition and partnerships, and spending and regulations, and soft power and defence, and moonshots and fundamental science. It is a big pile of stuff that is non contentious and appealing to lots of people all at once. George Freeman perhaps came closest to a coherent definition in his speech to Onward where he set out his view that research and innovation policy should be about driving economic growth through investment in research clusters and infrastructure while reforming the way regulation works to attract new partners, people, projects, and pounds.

Pioneer delivers some of this agenda. It is the least glamorous part of the plan but the commitment to do the mundane work of infrastructure investment is a welcome departure from the vague boosterism that can often infect research policy. To place lab investment as a central part of the scheme is to acknowledge that sometimes research policy can’t just be about partnerships, people and ideas. Sometimes it has to be about shovels in the ground. There is investment being left on the table due to a lack of appropriate lab spaces. There are no category four lab spaces, those that can handle the deadliest pathogens, in the north of England. In total, this means that there just is not the right space in the right places to do research. In short, Pioneer identifies an existing issue and sets out funding and policies to solve it.

Pioneer is also clear about what the priorities are for the UK government. Under the innovation section the plan shows how through working with business and with investment in the UK’s own research capacity the government will support developments in health, sustainability, national security, and five strategic technologies of AI, engineering biology, quantum technology, future telecoms and semiconductors.


The policy ideas are clear, coherent, and they could make an enormous difference to UK research. There is no doubt about that.

The problem is not the ambitions but that they are not easy to do. The UK has suffered from such a long tail of underinvestment and such a long history of lots of policies all at once that five years is not long enough for the UK to stand on its own outside of Horizon. The plan also cannot solve the inherent problem that being outside of Horizon would mean building new trading relationships, smoothing staff and student mobilities, setting up new global funds, and transitioning to a new scheme, at pace.

There is a future in sight of the UK as part of the world’s largest trading block while also investing in its internal capacity. This is the only basis through which being a science superpower is possible. We should also remember the original research spending priority was to hit 3 per cent in the long term. Now is the time to not only advocate for progress on Horizon but also to make the case that the UK’s membership is only made stronger by concurrent investment in infrastructure, additional global partnerships, and more generous mobility schemes.

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