Calls for UK to maintain EU research links as Government publishes ‘Horizon Plan B’

Article by Adam Duckett

CHEMICAL engineers have joined calls for the UK to maintain its links with the EU’s €95.5bn (US$97bn) Horizon research funding programme, after the UK Government released plans for how it would replace the scheme if an agreement can’t be reached.

The UK’s participation in EU research programmes was agreed during Brexit negotiations in 2020 but the bloc has not finalised it because of the UK’s moves to unilaterally overturn Northern Ireland trade rules. The impasse is disrupting research in the UK. Academics have had grants cancelled, are unable to lead on projects or collaborate with international partners, and some have chosen to move out of the UK to maintain the funding they’ve been awarded.

In July, UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he is concerned that the continued delays in agreeing the UK’s association with the Horizon as well as the smaller Copernicus, Euratom Research & Training, and Fusion for Energy funding programmes “are causing intolerable uncertainty for our research and business community.” He added “The Government’s position remains to associate to all four EU programmes. Given the ongoing delays, however, whatever happens we need to ensure that we are making the most of the UK’s science and innovation strengths, and so we need to prepare for an alternative future.”

In response, the Government has outlined the transitional arrangements it will put in place if the UK is unable to associate with EU research programmes soon. Measures include extending its scheme to replace Horizon grants that successfully completed EU evaluation, and to domestically assess and fund so-called “in-flight” applications that have not yet been completed by the EU. It also plans to increase funding through state agency UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to retain and attract top researchers and increase Innovate UK funding for SMEs, as well as provide funding for UK-based researchers to join international consortia.

The common reaction from the science and engineering community has been a guarded welcome that alternative plans are being developed, but with calls for the UK to push for full association with the EU.

Solomon Brown, a Committee Member of IChemE’s Research and Innovation Community of Practice, said: “It's positive to see that there is at least some thought about a plan for if we don't associate. The uncertainty has already stymied engagement with Horizon for UK researchers, and broadly lessened the numbers of projects developed as far as I can see. It would be good to have a better shape of the proposed new funding streams, and probably an attempt to mirror the sort of applied science/engineering, academic and industrial collaboration that Horizon fosters well. This is not something, in my experience, that UK funding does as well.”

Fellow Committee Member Paula Mendes added: “I agree with Solomon, there is still a lot of uncertainty. It is great to see that there will be new schemes, but it is still not clear how they will be implemented. The priority should be to keep pushing for the association to Horizon Europe. Although the Government has committed to fund Third Country participation if we do not associate, we will certainly miss out on several opportunities.”

Jim McDonald, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), said: “The strong preference of the Academy and the wider global research and innovation community is for the UK to associate with Horizon Europe. It will be most regrettable if that association becomes impossible for reasons that have nothing to do with research and innovation.

“We…hope that Government will release further plans and engage the community with them as uncertainty over association continues. We also hope that government will confirm its financial investment in these plans, although we understand that there are limits on decisions that can be made until a new Prime Minister and their Ministers are in place.”

He noted that if the UK fails to agree association with EU research programmes, the RAEng and its sister academies will help researchers by scaling up its Research Fellowships and its Chairs in Emerging Technologies awards.

Beyond its transitional measures, the Government has also said it is developing alternative longer-term plans to replace Horizon if a deal with the EU falls through. It said it will publish further information on these in due course following further discussions with the sector and across Government.

Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, said: “We welcome the Government’s commitment to sharing and consulting with the science community on alternative plans. Should it be necessary, a new collaborative research programme must be clear, credible, and costed. The community will need to see full detail on how Government will invest the £2bn [US$2.4bn] a year in UK R&D if we do not associate.”

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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