UK government unveils £14.6bn alternative to Horizon Europe funding programme

Article by Kerry Hebden

The new Pioneer prospectus sets out how the Government would protect and support UK science, research, technology and innovation sectors should association to Horizon fail to materialise.

THE UK government has published its “Pioneer” programme, a long-term strategy to support research and innovation in the UK should talks with the EU surrounding membership with the Horizon Europe scheme end in failure. 

It has been over two years since the UK officially left its nearest and biggest trading partner, the EU – a tumultuous period which saw tensions rise between the two over Northern Ireland trade rules.  

Although a new deal known as the Windsor Framework has now been adopted by the UK and the EU, the UK’s participation in a number of schemes including Horizon as well as the smaller Copernicus, Euratom Research & Training, and Fusion for Energy funding programmes, still faces uncertainty – a situation the government has called “intolerable.” 

As a precaution, in case ongoing participation talks failed to reach an agreement, last year ministers announced “Plan B” – an alternative scheme designed to fill the funding gap left by the UK’s exclusion of Horizon. 

Now dubbed “Pioneer”, the alternative programme, should it be required, would focus on four main themes to complement the country’s existing R&D investments: talent, which would enhance the UK’s investment in discovery research as well as the UK’s already strong talent offer; end-to-end innovation, aimed at increasing UK support to business-led innovation across sectors, technologies and UK regions; global collaboration, designed to complement and enhance existing international partnerships; and infrastructure, which would provide additional funding into UK science, research, technology and innovation infrastructure, building on programmes such as World Class labs. 

Designed in partnership with the UK science, research, technology and innovation sectors, Pioneer would receive the same amount of funding as the government would have paid to associate to Horizon from 2021 to 2027. This means the UK would invest around £14.6bn (US$18.1bn) in Pioneer to the end of 2027 to 2028, including the support already provided to the sector via the Horizon Guarantee, ministers said. 

Although the government reiterated its long-held position that association to Horizon Europe remains its preferred choice, initial details on Pioneer are being published now to give researchers and businesses the opportunity to give their input on the scheme. 

Science and technology secretary Michelle Donelan said: “We are engaging with the EU over Horizon Europe…We hope our negotiations will be successful, and that is our preference, but it must be on the right terms. 

“We must ensure we have an ambitious alternative ready to go should we need it and that our businesses and researchers have fed into it. Our top priority is supporting them to ensure their ground-breaking work can continue no matter what.” 

The general reaction to Pioneer by the science and engineering community has been one of a guarded welcome, tinged with ongoing calls for the UK to continue to push for full association with the EU. 

Sir Jim McDonald, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “The strong preference of the academy and the wider global research and innovation community has always been for the UK to associate with Horizon Europe… Should association prove impossible even at this late stage the information in the prospectus for Pioneer will be helpful to the community in preparing for the measures that would be put in place under those circumstances.” 

Funding worries

However, despite a positive response to Pioneer, Andrew Clark, executive director of programmes at the Royal Academy of Engineering, pointed out that uncertainties regarding current funding streams outside of Horizon was still an issue.  

“Delayed association with Horizon Europe is not the only challenge for our international research and innovation partnerships,” Clark said. “Ongoing uncertainties about the official development assistance research and innovation budget mean that we and other UK delivery partners are unable to launch the next stage of partnerships with researchers and innovators across the Global South. There is still no clarity on whether funding will be confirmed even for the financial year that has already begun.” 

In February 2021, the UK government took the decision to cut its official development assistance (ODA) budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI). This meant that UKRI, the national science and research funding agency, faced a £120m shortfall in funding allocations, which affected established international programmes such as the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund. 

According to the UKRI, when principal investigators  were asked if they believed that the reputation of the UK as a go-to partner in ODA research had been damaged, nearly 89% agreed that it had been. 

“The funding cut has summarily changed the nature of the relationship between UK funding and Global South institutions. It was earlier experienced as long- term commitment from the UK to areas of complex and deep global challenges, built across projects, to one that is transactional and limited to the time and scale of singular projects,” a report by the UKRI states. 

Article by Kerry Hebden

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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