‘Exciting’ UK plan for rival funder ‘may change minds’ on Horizon

Science minister George Freeman claims academics may warm to leaving EU research scheme if homegrown alternative offers attractive global opportunities

February 2, 2022
George Freeman
Source: Richard Townshend

A UK-led alternative to Horizon Europe might be preferable for British science because it would allow partnerships with prestigious universities outside the European Union, the country’s science minister has insisted.

Asked if he saw potential advantages for not associating to the EU’s flagship research scheme – in particular, the opportunity for UK institutions to cooperate with those at “better quality” universities in the US, Australia and Asia – George Freeman said he agreed with that analysis.

In his first appearance before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee since he was appointed science minister in September 2021, Mr Freeman said he understood that most UK scientists and researchers wished to remain a part of the EU’s research and development framework, now known as Horizon Europe, but insisted that a replacement scheme, known as Plan B, could be attractive.

At present, the UK is keen to join the seven-year initiative, but its membership has been held up by arguments with the EU on other parts of the Brexit settlement, including future protocols over trade between Northern Ireland and mainland UK.

Of those scientists he had spoken to, “nearly all – 80 per cent, if not 100 per cent – have said we would prefer continuity and we know how it works, but 20 per cent have said, ‘We can’t envisage an alternative,’” explained Mr Freeman at the hearing on 2 February.

“Eighty per cent have said [about Horizon Europe] that ‘It’s good, but it’s not perfect’, so I’ve tried to look at what it is that makes it so valuable.”

Mr Freeman highlighted the scheme’s fellowships, described as “prestigious but long-term funding mechanisms”, and the “ease of standard, off-the-shelf terms for international collaboration, which are also valued”.

Nonetheless, the UK fared surprisingly poorly in funding terms when it came to Horizon’s initiatives around industrial engagement and supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, he said.

“With the right balance between continuity…recognising it is substantial resource for some of our key research communities…we could evolve a genuinely very exciting programme where flagship fellowships are even more prestigious, perhaps longer term than Horizon’s,” Mr Freeman argued.

“We could support strategic industrial sectors like space, that aren’t allowed in [to Horizon]; we could do European and global collaboration with Five Eyes and allied countries. There is a very exciting opportunity to make it a very powerful global UK and international programme that drives bilateral and multilateral research.

“If we were to do that, quite a lot of people might say: ‘That sounds really exciting’ and ‘I’m not sure which I prefer – that or Horizon,’” he claimed.

Mr Freeman also criticised excessive bureaucracy in academic research, which was one rationale for the creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, which has been presented as operating outside these limitations.

“Too many scientists are working in an environment where the bulk of bureaucracy and time spent applying for grants – ticking boxes – is overly burdensome,” said Mr Freeman.

“We need to create that environment where excellence is rewarded with security [of funding], accountability measures are proportionate,” he continued, stating that the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge was a good example of an institution that had “proven its worth over and over again”.

“Institutions should not have to keep proving their worth, and we should have a system that rewards proven success which earns security,” he said.

Mr Freeman said the research excellence framework, “which has achieved a huge amount”, should be part of a “change moment” in British science, hinting at possible reforms when the REF’s international review panel completes its work.

On research funding, he claimed that the UK was akin to a “supertanker in a bit of slow lane – we need to have a motorway with lots of different streams. The REF will sit in the middle of that reform.”


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