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Policy and funding

Policy and funding

UK unveils ‘plan B’ if negotiations to join Horizon Europe fail

17 Apr 2023
Pic of UK and EU flags
Funding stream: the Pioneer programme would receive the £14.6bn the UK would have paid to join Horizon Europe from 2021 to 2027 (courtesy: iStock/tostphoto)

The UK government has published its long-awaited “plan B” for British science if negotiations to join the EU’s €95bn flagship Horizon Europe research programme fail. The £14.6bn seven-year  initiative, named Pioneer, would take the money that has been earmarked for the UK’s Horizon Europe participation and invest it in UK science, research, technology and innovation.

Although the government says its “preference” is to rejoin Horizon Europe, it warns that association would have to be “a good deal for UK’s researchers, businesses and taxpayers”. Launched by Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, Pioneer has four main elements. They involve attracting and training scientists and engineers; encouraging research and innovation; boosting international collaboration; and providing extra cash for research infrastructure.

If implemented, Pioneer would receive the £14.6bn that the UK would have paid to join Horizon Europe from 2021 to 2027. The UK government said this would include over £1bn that has now been awarded to UK researchers taking part in Horizon Europe projects, from the Horizon Europe guarantee scheme.

The UK’s participation in Horizon as an associate member had originally been agreed in 2020 as part of the post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. But its participation stalled and became a bargaining chip in disagreements over Northern Ireland. However, this block was removed in February with the signing of the Windsor Framework, which concerns the flow of trade through Northern Ireland.

In early April, Donelan met Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, in Brussels to begin formal negotiations to join Horizon Europe. Donelan says that while the UK government prefers association with Horizon Europe, the agreement “must be on the right terms” and that there needs to be an “ambitious alternative ready to go should we need it”.

For the good of UK science and innovation, the government’s priority must be to secure association to Horizon Europe

Tony McBride

The main sticking point appears to be how much the UK should pay to join Horizon Europe, given that the country has missed out for the last two years and has already spent some of the money that had been earmarked for Horizon on UK researchers.

Tony McBride, director of policy and public affairs at the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, is clear that negotiations must succeed. “For the good of UK science and innovation, the government’s priority must be to secure association to Horizon Europe,” he says. “Should it be needed, any alternative to Horizon must also make up for the loss of the established networks, partnerships and infrastructure the UK has benefited from over many, many years, as well as for the disruption and uncertainty caused by these years of delay.”

Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, echoes those views. While agreeing it is sensible for the UK government to prepare alternatives to Horizon Europe, she warns that it should not “get in the way of progress towards the goal of a full and cooperative research relationship between the UK and EU”.

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