Over the horizon

Our first glimpse of plan B for Horizon.

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

It is incredibly unlikely that the UK will associate to Horizon Europe.

There are no signs of any resolution to the political issues which are preventing association. There is no sign that the UK Government has the ability or desire to resolve them.

And there is no sign of any change in position from the European Union to enable association.

Switzerland is currently excluded from Horizon over disagreements with the EU on research and market access. A political problem but not a problem of the scale of the North Ireland Protocol.

Half life

In his final appearance at the Technology Select Committee before resigning two days after everybody else George Freeman set out a putative timetable for association. He said that it would be necessary to hear positive noises from Europe by the summer, and then if the phone never rang, to begin a transition to a new research framework from September 2022. Well, there is now no minister to pick up the phone and it looks like the EU has lost the Government’s number anyway.

BEIS has now published Supporting UK R&D and collaborative research beyond European programmes. The document sets out the department’s long-term vision for alternatives to European research programmes. In the interim UKRI has sought to assure the sector that it will stand up programmes to support existing schemes, develop support mechanisms for programmes which are “in-flight” and put in place the systems to enable transition to a future outside of Europe. In the week where the Grant review has pointed out that changing priorities lead to massive inefficiencies in UKRI standing up a programme of this scale will add more pressure to a creaking bureaucracy.

The vision thing

The document is not so much a single long-term vision but a series of overlapping policy proposals to cope with the sudden and enormous upheaval of leaving Horizon. The four main policy offers are that:

  • The government will boost its fellowship offer to improve international mobility and enable the retention of more researchers in the UK.
  • The UK will sign new multilateral and bilateral collaboration and seek Third Country Participation in Horizon.
  • There will be more funding toward strategic research priorities.
  • Infrastructure investment will be prioritised as part of the wider R&D ecosystem.

Together it’s about people, the UK’s new place in the world, and positioning research investment as being about the unique and important, and growing infrastructure capacity.

More clarity needed

The funding for these programmes is guaranteed through the settlement achieved at the Spending Review. There is a world of difference between committing to spending and there being the absorptive capacity to broker new partnerships, build new infrastructure, and attract new talent. It is good to have some clarity on the future, but nobody knows what a future outside of Horizon will look like.

It is the whole Brexit debate in a microcosm. We cannot ever really leave international collaborations, there will be lots of boosterism on the future of UK research, and there will be plenty of attrition to find a form of accommodation between the UK and Europe. In the meantime, funding will be lost, researchers will leave the UK, and the political issues will remain unresolved.

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