George Freeman and Ottoline Leyser at Commons Science and Technology Committee

No answers yet on Horizon, but some welcome clarity on what plan B may look like.

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

Ottoline Leyser, the Chief Executive of UKRI, and George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, both appeared before the Science and Technology Committee today – to discuss diversity in STEM, funding, and association to Horizon.

It was a low-key affair but nonetheless with some interesting discussions for universities. Firstly, the diversity of STEM was variously described as an issue of funding, one of research culture, a factor of teaching in schools, an issue as skills development, and as pointing to the need for an alignment between research and local economic strategies. There is commitment to publish more robust data sets to allow for targeted interventions, and to provide an update on the R&D People Strategy over the Summer.

Leyser highlighted that initiatives like narrative CVs (rather than just lists of academic achievements) were now progressing but it was too early to report on their impact.

Research watchers will remember the announcement of £300m for additional support for mathematical sciences. At the time David Abrahams, Director of the Isaac Newton Institute, noted that this funding was a recognition of the “chronic underfunding” of mathematics. It transpires that not all this funding is yet allocated. The committee have asked if the Minister could write to them to confirm that this funding will be spent, and that this is truly ringfenced funding and not double counting from another pot.

Horizon Scanning

On Horizon, it seems that the UK is entering the final months of any possible association.

Freeman stressed that if there weren’t positive signals in the next weeks and months it would likely mean that Plan B would be necessary, though he was keen to stress that Plan A – association to Horizon – remains his and the cabinet’s preferred option. Through work going on at BEIS, and in consultation with parts of the sector, the Minister sees Plan B as being characterised by more flexible funding for research and researchers, more international collaboration beyond Europe, all backed up by research infrastructure investment.

This plan B is currently being developed alongside discussions on funding with the Treasury. It is likely to be clear if Plan B is necessary at some point over the summer, and there would need to be a 12-18 months transition period from September, with the new system fully up and running sometime in late 2023 or early 2024.

All in all, there is little sign of progress toward association to Horizon. The Minister is clearly committed to association, going as far as to ask the EU Commission to find alternative ways to punish the UK over the Northern Ireland protocol, but the distance on this and other political issues seems too great.

This is not just a matter of what’s best for research or the economy, but how much damage the UK is willing to endure in the ongoing Brexit divorce proceedings.

The ministerial priority is people, and securing fellowship schemes. Another 18 months of delay while a new system is established would mean further losses of funds, faith, and applications not submitted – as has been widely reported in recent weeks. If the minister’s phone is going to ring it will have to be very soon.

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