The funding of research and innovation by the European Union is based on principles of mutual aid, economic growth, and collective goods.
Its basic premise is that its members pay into a pool and in return funding is distributed through programmes and frameworks like Horizon. This funding is sometimes distributed through competitive processes and sometimes allocated based on economic need. As programmes work across the EU, and in the case of Horizon beyond the EU, work is done at such a scale to allow collaboration between experts and institutions to tackle the global challenges which may be too large for one institution or nation to tackle alone.
It has been widely reported that the UK may now not associate to Horizon and lose out on a share of the £80bn of funding associated with it. Already, there are already reports of researchers leaving cross-European research consortia. There are a number of reasons why the current 17-month delay in association could become a permanent departure, but at its hearts sits the Northern Ireland protocol. The European Commission has made clear association will not happen until a settlement for the movement of goods, people, and services in Northern Ireland, can be reached in a manner which is satisfactory to the EU. Currently, it looks as if no such arrangement will be reached.
The debate speaks to a wider point that association to research partnerships like this is not just about money or even scientific strength. It is about trust. A shared belief in cooperation for global good. An expression of solidarity in allocating funds across countries. And, fundamentally, it is about surrendering some legal sovereignty to a more worthwhile goal. The participation in networks which are large enough, bound closely enough, and well-funded enough, to solve enormous economic and social challenges through research and innovation requires a degree of trust. Replacing funding for these schemes requires only political will. Replacing relationships in these schemes is impossible.
These relationships are so crucial as funding is not just for abstract science. There are structural funds which are aimed at stoking economic activity. There are job investment schemes aligned to research. And there are programmes which are research adjacent but encourage the movement of goods, people, and ideas. Ultimately, the funding of research across the European Union is about improving lives and livelihoods.
Let’s look to Wales as an example. The nature of EU structural funds means they are applied to areas which would benefit most from investment. This also means that withdrawal from EU funding will impact these areas most significantly. Levelling down in action. The report by the Welsh Parliament, Research and Innovation in Wales Research Briefing, notes that Wales is unique on its reliance on EU structural funds (as opposed to Horizon 2020 funds) for research and innovation activity. In a further report, Wales: Protecting research and innovation after EU exit, the Welsh Government note that as Wales only receives 2 per cent of total UK R&D funding the loss of EU structural funds will have a particularly devastating impact on their research infrastructure. The Welsh Government is particularly concerned that any replacement fund based on a competitive funding model, administered by the likes of UKRI, will put the nation at a distinctive disadvantage.
This is no small beer. Wales is per capita the largest recipient of the two main forms of EU structural funds in the UK – receiving over £2bn of funding between 2014-2020. This form of funding has acted as an EU buffer against a geographically lopsided funding hypothecation from the UK government. This is funding spent on programmes which are both innovative and job creating; like net-zero. Very much life changing stuff.
This funding was replaced by The UK Shared Prosperity Fund, but the replacement has attracted criticism from the Welsh Government both in the quantum of funding and that it is controlled from Westminster. As has been argued elsewhere on this site levelling up with research is about funding latent capacity to grow regional and devolved economies. It is therefore the devolved economies themselves who are best placed to make these funding decisions.
Investment in research and innovation through collective programmes is therefore scientific endeavour, a political tool, but also the most crucial of economic levers. The example of Wales demonstrates that changing a funding mechanism isn’t about putting down the same pounds from a different purse. Rebuilding research infrastructure is about partnerships between institutions, funders, nations, and devolved governments. This requires decisions on how to mix allocations and competitions, how to trade off funding between absolute growth and funding for unlocking latent potential, and perhaps most crucially, who gets to decide where and how funding is spent.