Making Horizon Europe’s successor work for UK research

The shape of the next EU framework programme is a live issue. Douglas Dowell presents the Russell Group’s policy asks

Douglas Dowell is a Policy Manager at the Russell Group

Horizon Europe is the world’s largest research and innovation programme, allowing the countries taking part to compete on a global scale none could deliver on their own. It is no surprise, therefore, that rejoining was a top priority for the Russell Group and the whole higher education sector.

Now the UK is inside Horizon Europe, universities are pulling out all the stops to make a success of association – from the University of Glasgow’s seed fund to support applications, to UCL’s free online advice sessions on Horizon, open to the whole sector.

The Russell Group hopes and expects that this is the start of stable UK association to EU research programmes. We know, however, that strengthening ties that have had to be rebuilt through Horizon Europe will take serious work. What this means is that the honeymoon period of the UK’s association agreement is over. It’s time to start thinking about the long-term, past Horizon, and what EU-UK research collaboration could look like in the next decade and beyond.

Here comes FP10

Discussions about the shape of Framework Programme 10 (FP10) – Horizon Europe’s successor, to run between 2028 and 2034 – are getting underway now, even before the new European Parliament and Commission begin work later this year.

The balance between fundamental and applied research, the types of research eligible for funding, and the scale and role of new initiatives within Horizon, such as EU “missions”, are all being discussed. As a constructive R&D partner with years of experience in EU framework programmes, we believe our universities have a valuable perspective to offer on the future of research and innovation on our continent.

We hope fundamental research – especially the independent and autonomous European Research Council – will be boosted, with a continuing focus on excellence. The ERC spurs the world’s best researchers to come to our continent, including Russell Group universities. However, it attracts far more research than it can fund – over a third of proposals the ERC deems excellent still cannot be supported. European research is losing out as a result: without increased focus, and especially if the share of fundamental research is reduced further, many opportunities will be missed.

Fundamental research may take longer to yield dividends, but often offers the biggest rewards in the end. For instance, the ERC part-funded Imperial College London’s Ferdinando Rodriguez Y Baena to explore new methods of creating brain images and to devise brain treatments using flexible, robotically-controlled needles. This revolutionised the accuracy of brain imaging – and later his project team, clinicians and businesses used Horizon’s collaborative pillar to roll the technology out. Cancer patients’ length and quality of life are being extended as a result.

Risk and reward

We also hope the collaborative, challenge-driven pillar of Horizon’s successor programme will include more calls supporting genuinely new technologies. While “nearer to market” projects’ impact may be more predictable and therefore could initially appear more attractive investments, projects which require more research and are at an earlier stage may involve greater risk, but also offer greater rewards.

For instance, UCL and the Bristol spin-out Ultraleap are working with colleagues in Denmark, Spain, Ukraine and Ireland on technologies which induce the sense of touch remotely. These projects are exactly the kind of initiatives which benefit most from public support and offer a greater public return.

Finally, we hope that in thinking about measuring impact, the commission will make sure the longer-term benefits of these projects are factored in, to avoid incentivising quicker wins over longer-term but bigger impact.

Horizon’s innovation pillar supports end-to-end innovation and proof of concept funding. This plugs gaps in the UK funding landscape and offers opportunities for university spin-outs and university-business collaboration. However, our sense is that researchers who could benefit are less aware of the opportunities than we would like. There is work to be done here in the UK, but we hope the commission will work with participating states to raise awareness in our HE sector.

Since the day the UK voted to leave the EU, the Russell Group has argued that continued R&D collaboration across Europe would be vital in making Brexit work.

Through participating in FP10, we have the chance to cement a stable, long-term relationship with EU science, research and innovation. The challenges facing the UK, the rest of Europe and our like-minded friends and partners, and the potential of research collaboration to help address them, mean this is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Read the Russell Group briefing on Framework Programme 10 here.

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