This article is more than 1 year old

Plan B for business

No matter who is at BEIS currently Horizon affiliation is critical to business as well as universities. James Coe has been reading UKRI board papers.
This article is more than 1 year old

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

Finding an alternative to Horizon is about money – but also about stitching together multi-national partnerships between universities, businesses, and global institutions.

Over at UKRI HQ this May the team took this issue head-on. In a  board discussion on Horizon, it was noted that:

“The board noted that non-association would have significant but variable impacts across the business and research communities, highlighting the substantial impact on the SME community, for example. They recommended that communications take account of the different audiences and their likely reactions in the event of non-association.”

There have been tens of committees, hundreds of column inches, and umpteen discussions, on the impact of Horizon on research within universities but much less discussion on research taking place between universities and business.

Where we’re up to

Let’s briefly recap where negotiations are up to. Back in the balmy summer of 2022 then Science Minister George Freeman said that it would be necessary for a transition period to commence in September 2022 if association to Horizon was not possible. In a recent select committee appearance Nus Ghani, the then Science Minister, confirmed that association to Horizon remained the preferred option. In between these events, mostly without a science minister, various funding extensions have been put in place and various threats of litigation have been made.

I should probably clarify: Out of the blue, previous Science Minister, George Freeman, tweeted yesterday that he had been appointed “Minister of the Crown for Science, Technology & Innovation.” It’s not entirely clear how a Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation differs from a Science and Investment and Security Minister. If at all.

In recent weeks the Ghani confirmed that funding ringfenced for Horizon association will still be made available for Plan B. This was before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt talked about the return of austerity. So, who knows if that guarantee still stands. Or who the science minister with responsibility for Horizon will be this time next week.

There is still an unavoidable Northern Ireland-shaped hole in the plans for Horizon association. Until the dispute about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is resolved there is little prospect of Horizon association. No amount of funding, political pressure, or litigation will change this political reality.

Plan B for best

To Plan B then. Back in July, the government proposed that if association to Horizon is not secured there would be a range of transitional measures in the short term and a package of Horizon alternatives in the longer term. The long-term measures included investment for attracting talent, international investment for collaboration, investment in infrastructure, and investment in industrial research and innovation. As far as Plan Bs go it is robust and has benefitted from significant input from across the university sector.

There is recognition in Plan B that something would have to be done to offset the costs to business of not being associated to Horizon. In a briefing to members the Russell Group succinctly sets out the benefit of Horizon to business:

Horizon Europe has an enormous amount to offer British businesses, and many have benefitted from previous programs; nearly 2,000 individual businesses based in the UK participated in Horizon 2020, with €1.4bn being awarded to industry. More than half of the UK businesses (60%) awarded funding under Horizon 2020 were SMEs and received more than €840m.

Horizon funding also reduces the financial risk for businesses. Horizon funding pays 100 per cent of direct costs plus an overhead, regardless of the size of the business. In comparison Innovate UK Smart Grants for business covers a maximum of 70 per cent for an SME. Audit requirements are light-touch making it more attractive for university-business collaborations.

In short, the schemes are, skewed toward SMEs, with a lighter touch audit regime. It sounds precisely like the sort of thing that businesses and universities have been asking for in the UK context.

Plan B as is proposes more funding for business development schemes through Innovate UK, more funding for multi-nation working, and third-country participation in Horizon up to 2025. Again, this will be helpful, but it might not be enough to further university and business collaborations.

A whole new world

These collaborations between universities and businesses are not adjacent to Britain’s future in the world. Knowledge exchange, business development, and commercialisation are the only hope for a more prosperous Britain outside of its largest training partner. The task outside of Horizon is nothing short of rebuilding a multi-national research infrastructure that spans business, universities, and the wider third sector.

There has been some exploration of these issues. For example, the Tickell Review on research bureaucracy was relatively quiet on the international dimensions of research but did consider the security implications of reducing barriers to collaboration. Tickell’s major concern was that reducing complexity could also make research partnerships less secure. It will not be easy to accommodate more liberal partnerships with greater security interventions.

The likes of Innovate UK will also need additional support in working between universities and research in a post-Horizon world. If there is no new funding while also outside of Horizon there is little chance Innovate UK will be able to push forward its ambitious program of collaborations, including those around Net Zero, Digital, and future technologies.

Horizon association looks increasingly unlikely. Any Plan B will have to preserve the best of business partnerships today while allocating sufficient funds to build new partnerships tomorrow.

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