Non-EU scientists face exclusion from sensitive Horizon projects

Most collaboration will continue, but emphasis on building the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’ means academics in Israel, the UK and Switzerland could be shut out of some areas

March 22, 2021
Two divers infant of steel protection under the sea with a submarine as a metaphor of Non-EU scientists face exclusion from sensitive Horizon projects
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Researchers from outside the European Union are set to be shut out of a small but growing proportion of sensitive Horizon Europe projects, as the bloc steps up rhetoric about using its new multibillion-euro funding framework to secure its “open strategic autonomy”.

The vast majority of collaborations with academics in non-EU associated countries such as the UK, Israel and Switzerland should continue unhindered during the seven-year programme. But a strategic plan for Horizon Europe released on 15 March makes clear that at least part of it will be used to protect the EU’s “sovereignty” over “strategic technology areas”, security, and “critical infrastructures”.

This follows the news, reported first by Science Business earlier in March that UK, Swiss and Israeli scientists are set to be excluded from certain quantum computing and space projects to protect the bloc’s “strategic assets, interests, autonomy, or security”.

Peter Mason, a policy manager at Universities UK focusing on Europe, said that further restrictions on UK scientists joining sensitive Horizon Europe projects were likely. “I certainly wouldn’t say that’s all we’re going to face,” he said, referring to the quantum computing and space exclusions.

“As long as it’s a small part of the programme, and it doesn’t happen on a wide-scale basis, we can live with it,” he said.

But with tensions mounting between London and Brussels over the production and delivery of coronavirus vaccines, the political dynamics are uncertain.

“This shouldn’t proliferate,” said Mr Mason of the exclusions. “But politics can be a powerful drug, so I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said that an EU official had informally estimated that about 5 per cent of Horizon Europe projects would exclude researchers from some non-EU countries from certain calls, where the EU wanted to keep certain technologies “very close”.

The UK remained a “trusted partner” of the EU on security issues, “given that it’s a Nato partner”, he said.

“Strategic autonomy” has in recent years become a growing preoccupation in Brussels, particularly as the pandemic has exposed the bloc’s reliance on others for medical equipment and vaccines. Although loosely defined, it points to an EU desire to be able to act with technological or military independence, free from reliance on other powers such as the US.

That the term is now a key goal of Horizon Europe marks a sharp break with the “open to the world” attitude of its predecessor, Horizon 2020, observers said, and suggested that a much closer eye will be kept on who is allowed to collaborate.

“There’s no surprise that there’s a close alignment of higher education to EU priorities,” said Dr Jørgensen. “It’s a more political programme.”

A spokesman for Swissuniversities, an umbrella body, said that exclusion from some programmes would mark a big break with Horizon 2020.

“Swissuniversities is observing developments in the EU with great interest,” he said. “Swiss universities are striving to participate in all programmes. In doing so, they would like to build on the successful collaborations to date and make a contribution to innovation”.

However, the new emphasis on “strategic autonomy” only applies to the largest part of Horizon Europe, called “Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness”. The latest strategic plan does not cover the European Research Council, which remains fiercely politically independent and awards grants on scientific excellence alone.

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