Horizon association deal ‘opens door for Pioneer reappraisal’

Ministers should take another look at ‘ambitious’ plans for decade-long fellowships after Horizon Europe membership was agreed, urges sector

September 27, 2023
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looks at a 3-D printed model of an All Terrain Armoured Transport Walker to illustrate Horizon association deal ‘opens door for Pioneer reappraisal’
Source: Getty images

The UK’s association to Horizon Europe should not prevent it from introducing innovative ideas from its Pioneer back-up plan, sector leaders have argued.

While Rishi Sunak’s decision to sign off on Britain’s membership of the European Union’s flagship €95 billion (£84 billion) research scheme has been widely welcomed by the UK’s research community, elements of the Pioneer scheme that would have replaced Horizon in the event of non-association could still be adopted, scientists have insisted.

The UK’s commitment to join Horizon might allow a reappraisal of Pioneer’s ideas that was not possible when association hung in the balance, said Nick Plant, deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) at the University of Leeds.

“Universities have been lukewarm on Pioneer because we were clear that Horizon association was the best course…but Pioneer was really ambitious in many ways,” said Professor Plant. “It would be a shame if we did not build on this work.”

Pioneer’s plans for Discovery research fellowships potentially worth £10 million and lasting up to 10 years could, for instance, prove a powerful tool in attracting or retaining world-class talent, said Professor Plant.

“These fellowships would give researchers the freedom to be truly innovative and would give people time to deliver,” he said. “If you want to attract the brightest and the best, you need these prestigious fellowships.”

Parts of the 50-page blueprint for UK science post-Brexit could be funded by the billions of pounds allocated to Horizon for the past two years, which remain unspent. The saving amounted to £1.6 billion in 2022-23, science minister George Freeman has previously suggested.

Mike Galsworthy, co-founder of Scientists for EU, said he believed Horizon association should not be a barrier to “bringing forward complementary parts of Pioneer to expand UK science”.

“These things should not be either/or. We need to be doubling down on our strengths of science and higher education, ensuring that we are part of the big networks, then stretching our outreach even further,” said Dr Galsworthy.

Jolanta Edwards, director of strategy at London Higher, said Pioneer’s prospectus “contains a range of proposals which could play a supporting role to the Horizon programme”.

“The awards and fellowships proposed are larger and longer than those available under Horizon Europe, and they would be a welcome addition to the research landscape,” said Ms Edwards, who noted that the “general reduction in bureaucracy that the prospectus has proposed would also be a welcome move”.

“To leverage our strengths and become a science superpower, we need to harness all available resources to enable our researchers to thrive,” she added.

However, obtaining the additional funding for Pioneer’s plans, which would have cost £3 billion a year in its entirety – was highly unlikely, warned John Womersley, a former executive chair of the Science and Technology Funding Council. “I’d be very surprised if any of those initiatives survive,” said Professor Womersley, now a visiting professor of physics at the University of Oxford.

“I’d imagine there are still sceptics in the Treasury who aren’t fully convinced that Horizon is a good deal, and since the science community made clear that this was their highest priority, I expect that there’s an attitude of ‘OK, well you got what you wanted but you’d better not ask for anything else’.”


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