Will we ever get beyond the horizon?

For James Coe, the uncertainty over Horizon can't go on forever - but a resolution doesn't seem forthcoming either

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

Trying to keep on top of the UK’s attempts to associate with Horizon Europe is like wrestling with jelly.

Everytime it seems like someone has a hold of what is going on it squirms away and flops into unpredictable places and shapes.

Let’s recap. Back in February then Minister for Science, Research, and Innovation, George Freeman, appeared before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to stress that while association to Horizon Europe was still Plan A a move toward a bespoke UK scheme, Plan B, looked ever more likely. Freeman went as far to put a specific timeframe around the conclusion of negotiations. At the Committee he said:

Internally, our thinking is that we need to be ready in the new financial year to start to release some of the funding we have put aside for Horizon into programmes so that the science community is not left sitting on the bench, as it were, rather than on the pitch. I am keen to make sure that those could seamlessly, like a motorway slipway, segue back into Horizon association were that to materialise, perhaps after the French elections.

Effectively, Freeman proposed a holding pattern which would allow a swift landing into Horizon while Plan B was simultaneously developed. In reality, it is difficult to imagine how a dual track system which sufficiently funded independent UK research without too great a departure from Horizon could work in practice or within the existing financial envelope. After all the money set aside for Horizon and for the UK’s Plan B is from the same pot of funding.

Holding patterns

Fast forward to Freeman’s appearance in front of the same committee in June and he was even more forthcoming on timelines. He said “September will be when the transition programme begins, and then there is a transition through over the next year or 18 months”. In July, the government also announced its plans for transitional arrangements. As I write this on 4th September, five months after the French election, there is no sign that Plan B has yet sprung into action.

Now, I am of course aware there has been a leadership election and a change/absence of a ministerial team in that time. Either way, the pressing need to assure universities, researchers, and businesses of the rules of the research game they are playing doesn’t disappear because the government has collapsed.

It is now 21 months since the UK was due to associate to Horizon. Either impatient or seizing an opportunity to appeal to the Conservative Party base Liz Truss launched legal action against the EU in August. It is her view that the EU is acting unlawfully by blocking association over her government’s threats to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol. Needless to say, breaking international agreements and issuing legal threats to our biggest trading partner is unlikely to lead to association. For comparison, Switzerland remains excluded from the scheme over less egregious breaches of international agreements.

Taxiing

Last week the government announced an extension to the Horizon financial safety net. Blink and you will miss the change but it is potentially significant. In the initial version of the financial safety net funding would be extended where a last legal grant signature was secured before 31 December. Now, funding will be extended where a successful application is submitted with a final deadline on or before 31 December 2022. Effectively, there is now additional time to complete the paperwork to secure funding. It may only make a marginal difference in some cases but with three months to go every extra day counts.

As extensions and litigation rumble on there is still no sign of any significant progress toward association or Plan B. This holding pattern cannot go on forever or the plane will simply run out of fuel as the withering of collaborations and funding will accelerate. It is difficult to imagine a world where association is possible without resolving the issues over the Northern Ireland Protocol. It is even more difficult to imagine the intransigence over the Northern Ireland Protocol will be unblocked any time soon. The single biggest risk at the moment is that the government neither associates to Horizon or leaves enough runway for a smooth transition to Plan B.

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