Horizon global is taking shape. Will the UK be left behind?

26 July 2023 | Muriel Cozier

Hopes that there would be a swift resolution on the UK’s association with Horizon Europe were dashed after a highly anticipated meeting between UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, on the sidelines of NATO Summit held in Vilnius, Lithuania, 11-12 July brought no fresh news.

Speculation remains that the UK is trying to negotiate a better deal, but the continued delay is a source of frustration among the UK’s science community. Responding to reports in the Financial Times that any progress on the UK’s association with Horizon Europe would be delayed until after the summer; President of the Royal Society Sir Adrian Smith said: ‘This news, if true, will fill the science community with dismay. The basics of the Horizon deal were put in place two years ago. But we still wait, and the damage done by ongoing uncertainty and further potential delay continues.’

Delay is costing the UK

Time is money

As the Financial Times released its news, the UK Parliament debated Horizon Europe and Janet Daby, an MP for the Labour opposition party took the opportunity to set out the cost to the UK. ‘Owing to the government’s delay in associating with Horizon Europe the UK has lost out on ‘hosting’ nearly 400 high-end European Research Council grants. Furthermore, nearly 50 grant winners have left the country altogether. Scientists including Brian Cox and Sir Paul Nurse are warning that the government’s failure to act is damaging Britain’s science base. Is the Secretary of State concerned about these failings?’

Responding, Chloe Smith, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology said: ‘Unfortunately it is the European Union that has delayed for more than two years, and that has caused serious and lasting damage to the UK’s participation. What we need to do is ensure that we can get the right deal for the UK’s researchers, UK businesses and UK taxpayers. That is what we are working to do, and we are confident that the talks are proceeding constructively. It is much more important to get the right deal rather than to get a fast deal.’

Europe’s MEPs are also seeking some clarity on the UK’s association. During a hearing held by the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, Christian Ehler, MEP, and a rapporteur for Horizon Europe asked what room there was for negotiation between the UK and EU baring in mind that UK association was agreed under the Trade Cooperation Agreement (TCA) setting the terms of the UK’s post Brexit relationship.

‘The UK wants to negotiate its financial position for its participation. However, it is settled in the TCA. Changing would mean amending the TCA,’ Ehler said.

Ain’t no mountain high enough

In the meantime, just days before the Vilnius meeting, it was announced that New Zealand had signed an agreement to associate with Horizon Europe. The development means that New Zealand will be able to participate in Pillar II of Horizon Europe. This pillar is described as ‘the most relevant and biggest collaborative part that is primarily focused on shared global challenges in climate, energy, mobility, digital, industry and space, health, and more.’

‘This marks the first association with a close partner that is not geographically close to Europe,’ the Commission said in a statement. The way that things are shaping up it will not be the last.

During the EU-Japan Summit, which took place in Brussels just after the NATO Summit, the partners discussed areas where they were committed to cooperation. Amongst the steps to closer cooperation was a plan to: ‘Continue to exchange views for Japan’s possible association to Horizon Europe.’ Talks on Japan’s association were formally launched during May 2022.

Indeed, the list of international partners in discussions about associating with the €95.5 billion EU research and innovation programme is extensive. During May 2023, the European Commission and the Republic of Korea launched formal negotiations on Korea’s association to Horizon Europe. Canada is also in the mix, with formal negotiations launched in November 2022. At the time the EU said ‘It is the ambition of the EU to have Canada formally associated to Horizon Europe in 2023.’ Canada’s Minister of Innovation Science and Technology, The Honourable Françoise-Philippe Champagne said at the time: ‘It is crucial to build our partnerships with like-minded countries to deliver the greatest impact and make Canadian researchers, innovation players and businesses shine internationally.’

When asked what the status of talks between Canada and the EU are, a spokesperson at the Mission of Canada to the European Union said: ‘Currently Canada [is] in negotiations on closer cooperation under the Horizon Europe framework programme. Updates can be shared solely once all [negotiations] have concluded, likely later this year.’

 Everybody wants to rule the world

Global horizon

The European Commission has made plain its ambition for Horizon Europe to become a global research and innovation programme. In its International Cooperation Strategy, the Commission has said: ‘International Cooperation in research and innovation is a strategic priority.’ Amongst other things it will enable ‘access to the latest knowledge and best talent worldwide,’ as well as allow for greater ‘science diplomacy.’ Countries where formal negotiations for association to Horizon Europe have been concluded include Albania, Bosnia, Iceland, Norway, and Ukraine.

‘Multilateral research and innovation initiatives are the most effective way to tackle challenges facing our world – climate, health, food, energy, and water – that are global by nature. Working together to reduce the global burden, pools resources and achieves greater impact,’ the Commission said.

There is no doubt that the UK’s science and businesses communities are frustrated with the situation on the UK’s access to what is seen as the global flagship science programme. Speaking at the UK Parliament Horizon Europe debate the Secretary of State for Science and Technology said: We have continued to support the [science] sector, with more than £1.5 billion of the Horizon guarantee. ‘We have done that to ensure that there is no loss of funding for the UK science sector. I think it is far more important to speak directly to researchers, businesses, and taxpayers about our commitment to getting the right deal than to engage in party politics here.’

The Pioneer programme – a back-up to Horizon Europe – is planned for UK science. However, while contingencies are welcomed, much of the UK’s science community would prefer association.

Will the ‘right deal’ allow the UK to realise its ambition to become a science superpower? Outside of what is fast becoming the world’s largest science club, that ambition would be quite a task.

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