‘Shopping list’ approach to Horizon Europe ‘leads to deadlock’

Requests to withdraw from less lucrative areas of Europe’s research scheme will delay UK membership and cost universities billions of pounds, warn science policy experts

March 13, 2023
Bargain hunters attack a display of china at Selfridges to illustrate ‘Shopping list’ approach to Horizon Europe ‘leads to deadlock’
Source: Getty

Delays to the UK’s membership of Horizon Europe could stretch into years if ministers seek to negotiate a bespoke deal regarding the different parts of the €95 billion (£84 billion) research scheme, say science experts who have warned that “incomprehensible dithering” is costing British science millions of pounds a day.

While the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has raised hopes that the UK might join Europe’s flagship research initiative within a few months, having stated that negotiations would “start immediately” once an agreement on Northern Irish trade rules was finalised, doubts have now been cast on this timeline.

Among the issues that could require talks is the overall price paid by the UK for joining Horizon Europe two years into the seven-year framework, with the European Union likely to want recompense for the administrative costs of evaluating the UK’s Horizon bids since 2021.

A bigger sticking point might concern reports that the UK is seeking to opt out of certain “pillars” of Horizon Europe where its involvement and funding might be limited and thus pay a reduced annual contribution.

While the UK government remains keen on participating in the European Research Council’s €26 billion competitive grant funding scheme, there are fears in London that rules that bar non-EU leadership of “pillar two” projects on global challenges would limit the UK’s ability to capture funds from its €53 billion budget. Historically, the UK has also done poorly on “pillar three” funding for innovation, where €13.5 billion is available up to 2027.

Requesting a “shopping list” approach to Horizon Europe’s various pillars was unlikely to be accepted by the EU, which had always resisted calls by member states to “pick profitable ones and ditch less rewarding ones”, warned Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, who was commissioned by the UK government in March 2019 to draw up a “Plan B” in the event of Horizon Europe non-association.

“If we take a ‘shopping list’ approach to Horizon, you are essentially asking for a better deal than that given to EU members,” said Professor Reid, who added that this attitude failed to recognise the broader benefits of “buying into a collaborative environment” offered by Horizon. “It’s not just about picking things off the shelf that seem the best value that day,” he continued.

Noting that it was four years since he and Royal Society president Sir Adrian Smith had been asked to devise their Plan B, any further delays would represent “incomprehensible dithering” on the part of ministers, said Professor Reid, who said he was worried that £2.3 billion earmarked for Horizon membership in 2023-24 could be clawed back by the Treasury in the same way that £1.6 billion of unused 2021-22 funds was recently lost.

“These delays are coming at a price – it is costing UK science every day we are outside Horizon,” said Professor Reid, who noted that the loss of structural EU funds for research, worth almost £1 billion since 2014, was also affecting UK universities.

Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said requests for fundamental changes to the UK’s agreed deal would cause further delays.

“Both sides need to get their act together,” said Professor Palmowski, who warned that “we could still be talking about this in another three years unless there is goodwill from both parties. But we don’t have this time to waste – we’ve waited long enough, and we need a deal in months, not years.”


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