Life after Horizon Europe: what UK scholars can expect in Plan B

Stabilisation funding, fellowships and industry collaboration grants identified as key priorities, but questions about whether country can successfully replicate Brussels schemes remain

June 13, 2022
Source: Getty montage

George Freeman’s dash to Brussels for what he called a “last round of talks” injected a note of drama into the long-stalled negotiations over the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. But the science minister’s Eurostar trip was, for many, more a public relations gambit than a genuine opportunity to resolve the 18-month impasse over membership of the European Union’s flagship research scheme.

“He’s doing his best to keep us in Horizon but the main barrier – the Northern Ireland protocol – is clearly well above his pay grade,” one gloomy Brussels-based official told Times Higher Education.

Indeed, the lack of scheduled meetings with any senior EU representatives during the trip only highlighted how unlikely the UK’s association has become, despite the passionate desire of scientists and politicians on all sides to stay in the scheme. That prospect seems more distant than ever with the UK government set to reignite a row with Brussels by proposing new legislation on border issues with Northern Ireland.

Attention has now turned to the “bold, global alternative to Horizon” that Mr Freeman said was “ready to launch”.

“We can’t have this stalled position any longer – having neither Horizon nor a known alternative is the worst position as we’re about to lose significant funding,” said Carsten Welsch, head of the University of Liverpool’s department of physics, who was forced to step aside last month as the leader of a €2.6 million (£2.2 million) EU-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions doctoral network that would have brought some of Europe’s leading PhD researchers to the north-west of England to work on novel plasma accelerators.

“If we don’t have Horizon, the UK science community needs an alternative way to spend the money that has been promised,” he added.

With the June deadline for finding an EU-based institution to use research funding now passed, many more UK-based researchers have gone public about regretfully giving up hard-won grants. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has vowed to cover any funding lost by Horizon Europe grant winners but a much larger sum remains available and unspent as the UK-EU deadlock drags on; about £2.5 billion, including £1.3 billion rolled over from 2021-22, was made available to spend this year in last November’s Budget, roughly the same as the combined core research budgets of the UK’s seven main grant-awarding research councils in 2022-23.

“The pressure to spend the money made available in the spending review is growing,” said Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, who, with Royal Society president Adrian Smith, was asked in 2019 to draw up a “Plan B” funding model in case Horizon Europe membership did not materialise.

“The money from 2021-22 has already been reprofiled,” he explained on the decision to roll it into the current financial year. “But it will be incredibly difficult to hang on to it if it is not spent this year,” said Professor Reid on the “use it or lose it” quandary that may explain why ministers are ready to move forward with a Horizon Europe alternative.

Under the blueprint recommended by Professor Reid, the Plan B package would include three separate pillars – a “stabilisation fund” to help EU-supported research teams, a new series of fellowships to attract top international researchers, postdocs and PhD students, and grants to support industry collaboration. That model seems broadly to be what Mr Freeman is trailing, though the last element is said to have been strengthened in line with his more industry-aligned “Innovation Nation” ambitions for UK science. A consultation on what lies ahead is likely to take place in the autumn, THE understands.

For Professor Reid, the stabilisation fund involving block grants based on previous Horizon Europe funding levels was the most pressing concern. “That fund will protect established research teams so they can keep going and could be made fairly easily with a formulaic allocation,” he explained.

“We know quite a lot of research funding is hand to mouth, so if we don’t provide something in a transition period, we could see research capabilities begin to disperse before new funding arrangements are established.”

Creating a series of fellowships to replace those run by Horizon Europe should not be too difficult given the UK’s history in running similar schemes, added Professor Reid. “People get misty-eyed about the ERC and what it does but it hasn’t been around for that long,” he said of the agency, which was created in 2007.

“I would say a Royal Society professorship stands shoulder to shoulder with an ERC-run scheme at the very least – we’re not short of these prestigious models, which have been running long before the ERC was created.”

Others were not so confident that replicating models such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie doctoral networks would be easy, particularly if European funders were not keen on co-funding a UK-led scheme. “Is there an appetite to re-channel funding into a UK replacement for Horizon? I’m not so sure,” said Liverpool’s Professor Welsch, who added that the UK may need to be content with third-country status that allows it to participate for a price but not lead any projects.

Directing the money into existing UKRI doctoral training networks was an option, particularly if they were asked to work more internationally, he added. “The advantage of the European training model is that researchers will get exposure for their work in five or six countries – anything that is national, however well run, will fall short,” said Professor Welsch.

Some were less gloomy about Britain’s post-Horizon projects. Without the straitjacket of Horizon, the UK could bolster its partnerships with world-class universities outside the EU, with Mr Freeman talking up the prospect of deeper cooperation with Israel, Switzerland, Singapore, Australia and the US in recent months.

“Horizon Europe has many virtues but it’s not the research paradise that some people pretend,” one academic who has advised UKRI on Plan B told THE anonymously. “There’s a lot of politics involved in grant applications – you often have to find someone in Albania or Bulgaria to work with because it looks good, even if there are stronger partners available,” he said, adding: “You really want to be working with places like Yale or Harvard.”

However, those apparent drawbacks of Horizon should not be overplayed, said John Womersley, visiting professor of physics at the University of Oxford, who ran the European Spallation Source facility in Sweden until last year.

“There has always been an element of ‘levelling up’ when it comes to European research funding, but politically savvy scientists have seen there is some benefit of bringing those from the EU’s eastward expansion into the fold,” said Professor Womersley, a former executive chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

But reorientating research collaboration towards the US and Canada would be the “most obvious step” under any Plan B “as they are big enough and open enough” to such partnerships, though it would pose significant organisational challenges, added Professor Womersley.

“The US has a very decentralised research system – there is not really anyone you can ring up and say: ‘We want to deal with US universities,’” he observed, adding that there would be difficulties with dealing with other smaller but outstanding research nations.

“In research, Israel is often fetishised by politicians because it has such a strong record on innovation and a booming tech sector, but its research often has a very military and defence angle to it, so it might not offer the range of opportunities that we need.”

The logistical challenge of working with countries outside Europe should also not be underestimated, added Professor Welsch. “My department has links with universities across the world – in the US, Africa, Asia – but most collaboration happens in Europe,” he explained.

“That’s not just because the best infrastructure is on the continent but because a researcher could travel to Switzerland for two or three days without much hassle, particularly if they travelled back at the weekend. If you are travelling to Japan or South Korea for a short visit, it has a huge impact on what you can do in a week – even a Zoom call is difficult because some colleagues will be talking in the middle of the night due to time zone differences.”

One further sticking point may be the extent to which Plan B research grants can be spent outside the UK; Professor Womersley said up to half of spending should be allowed to go abroad on UK-run projects but the idea of millions of taxpayers’ money being spent on facilities and staff working in overseas universities may be politically contentious.

Professor Reid was optimistic that any future scheme would be flexible enough to allow the academic mobility needed to foster successful collaborations across the globe. “If someone gets a fellowship and wants to disappear to a US university for two years, then we might need to have a debate about this and there should be a national interest test,” he said.

However, substantial sums are already invested overseas at Cern in Switzerland, the Square Kilometre Array telescope project based in South Africa and Australia, and the British Antarctic Survey, he noted.

“I don’t have a problem at all with spending research money internationally as long as it serves British interests,” Professor Reid said.

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Reader's comments (1)

British interests? How about the interests of scholarship and science?