Horizon Europe is the largest and richest funding programme for scientific research in the world. Run by the European Union (EU), it has a budget of €95.5 billion (£83 billion) spread over seven years – from 2021 to 2027.
Until 2020, the UK was a full member of the Horizon programme –- and net beneficiary, meaning it got more money from the scheme than it put in to join. Brexit changed that. Being outside the EU means the UK must negotiate to become an associate member of Horizon Europe – which has many but not all the benefits of full membership.
There are ongoing negotiations between the EU and UK over associate membership, which has support from the scientific community. However, the current protracted delay in this process is causing significant damage to UK science and research.
Research by its very nature is long term. For Horizon, EU issues calls for proposals, and teams of scientists from different institutions in several countries apply for the funding. That means scientists in other countries need clarity over the UK’s position to have the confidence to continue working with our researchers.
None of us currently has any certainty that the UK will be involved in Horizon Europe going forward, and if so, to what extent. International partners are understandably cautious about inviting us into early discussions about collaborating on research projects. They have similar concerns about future UK eligibility and about additional red tape.
This is a problem because large research consortia can often begin to form more than a year before a detailed proposal is finally submitted. Consequently, we are already seeing fewer opportunities for UK-based researchers to collaborate with EU counterparts. This ultimately reducies our impact in scientific research for the future.
For example, the University of East Anglia’s participation in collaborative Horizon proposals fell 63% between 2016 (the year of the EU referendum) and 2022. This was accompanied by a 69% fall in collaborative Horizon funding over the same period.
Collaboration across borders is absolutely crucial for generating world class research. Truly outstanding research tends to be done by people working internationally. Multiple perspectives, complementary expertise and diverse approaches to problem solving are all vital ingredients in research. It’s what needed for it to be capable of providing solutions to the complex and interdisciplinary challenges faced by populations across the world.
These challenges include climate change, food and nutrition, infectious diseases, sustainable agriculture, the healthcare needs of ageing populations, water security, energy efficiency, initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and of course artificial intelligence (AI).
But these challenges don’t begin and end at national borders, so it is vital to build and deliver international responses, achieving greater scale and impact. Countries should be enabled to achieve far more collectively compared to purely national efforts.
One of the other advantages of Horizon Europe is that there is one single, overarching regulatory structure, which applies uniformly to all participants.
Dislocation from Horizon Europe introduces undue layers of administrative bureaucracy and complexity not only for UK universities, but for our current and future collaborators elsewhere. We would very much prefer to operate under the same regulatory environment for research as universities and research institutions in the rest of Europe.
Consider this: Germany, and then the UK, were the top two performers under Horizon 2020, the predecessor to Horizon Europe which ran from 2014 to 2020.
However, in the first two years of Horizon Europe, the UK fell to seventh place, having been overtaken – in participations – by Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Our international research collaborators do not like uncertainty.
The UK’s historically strong directional influence over EU science and research is also now being eroded, despite recent UK ministerial rhetoric about the UK becoming a “science superpower”. Over a period of several decades, UK universities built up enviable positions as globally significant and agenda setting institutions. However, in the last couple of years, the UK has led far fewer international research projects. It has not been permitted to lead collaborative Horizon projects since 2021.
What this means is that the international research activities of UK universities have generally become smaller, more selective and more focused. The longer term effect of this is that we import fewer ideas and new approaches into the UK.
On April 6, 2023, the UK government published its blueprint for an alternative, domestic research and innovation funding scheme, called “Pioneer” and previously known as “Plan B”. This would be initiated in the event that UK association to Horizon Europe not be negotiated. While there are some positive aspects to the £14.6 billion Pioneer programme, it does not match up to the opportunities offered by full UK association to Horizon Europe.
For example, countries such as New Zealand, Canada and Japan have
all either joined Horizon Europe or are currently in discussions to do so, which will further expand its geographic reach. A domestic scheme cannot substitute for the access to such global networks of scientists and the infrastructure.
Horizon Europe isn’t perfect. High levels of oversubscription, accompanying low success rates and inconsistent feedback have been a worry for some time. Research proposals that achieve an international level of excellence are routinely rejected. But the reality is that Horizon Europe is the largest and most successful research framework programme available to UK researchers.
Successive EU framework programmes (the predecessors to Horizon Europe) have proven to be highly effective at facilitating and stimulating high quality pan-European collaborations, to the extent that the UK was a top five collaboration partner for each of the other 27 EU member states under Horizon 2020. In particular, the opportunities for the arts, humanities and social science disciplines within Horizon Europe are unparalleled.
The UK’s overriding priority should continue to be full association as soon as possible, in order to limit the damage that the delay of two and a half years plus is having on our cooperation with international research partners.
This article was prepared with the help of Ian Beggs, European funding manager at the University of East Anglia.
Fiona Lettice receives funding from UKRi and has previously received funding from EU.