New Zealand is now a part of Horizon Europe. The UK is not. Time for Plan Z?

12 July 2023 | Simon Frost

The UK science and industry community is awaiting an update on the country’s potential re-admittance as a member of the Horizon Europe collaboration programme – a week after UK and EU negotiators agreed a draft deal on Britain’s re-entry to the programme, during which time New Zealand, a country some 11,000 miles from Brussels, signed an agreement to join.

It was understood that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would be meeting with EU President Ursula von der Leyen yesterday on the margins of the NATO summit, which is taking place in Vilnius, Lithuania, to formally tie up any loose ends for the deal. However, this morning there remains no news of a completed deal between the UK and EU for Horizon membership.

Politico has reported that Sunak told journalists on a plane to the conference: ‘Our preference is to associate to Horizon but we need to make sure that we do that on terms that work for the UK and are in the UK’s best interests […] Those conversations are ongoing and it is important that we give those conversations the time to conclude. There’s no point in doing something that it is not in the interests of British taxpayers or British researchers and scientists.’

The absence of a formal discussion, Politico suggests, ‘may signal a last-minute UK attempt to get further concessions from the EU’. 

Yesterday, SCI released its UK Industrial Strategy: Scaling and Commercializing UK Science and Technology report, calling on the UK government to urgently deliver an ambitious industrial strategy for clean tech and life sciences. Membership of Horizon would undoubtedly support the recommendations made in the report. 

Industrial Strategy: Scaling and Commercializing UK Science and Technology
Download the report, UK Industrial Strategy: Scaling and Commercializing UK Science and Technology, here.

There is, of course, the Pioneer programme – a plan detailed by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology in April. Framed as a ‘Plan B’ should the UK and EU fail to agree on terms for Horizon association, Pioneer was reportedly intended to work alongside existing initiatives, government departments and funding partners, in partnership with UK universities and businesses, to strengthen global research collaboration. The prospective programme comprises four pillars, which focus on investment in discovery, research and talent; enhancing and establishing new international partnerships; supporting business-led innovation; and funding UK research infrastructure.

At the launch of the Pioneer programme, Minister of State for Science, Research and Innovation George Freeman said: ‘Pioneer offers the opportunity to refresh our R&D ecosystem with more agile SRTI funding models that would benefit from substantially less bureaucratic application processes and ease private sector co-investment. Under this Pioneer plan, the UK would invest around £14.6bn over seven years, ensuring that UK researchers and businesses receive more funding than they would have received under Horizon.’


While the existence of a backup plan was broadly welcomed by the UK science base, the overwhelming response was that Horizon membership remains the clear preference. Tim Bradshaw, CEO of the Russell Group said: ‘The ambition of the proposals for Pioneer is welcome. However, we have always been clear that it will be a challenge to replicate the full benefits of the world’s largest collaborative research programme, with ready-made routes for talent flow, facilities access and collaboration with multiple countries.’

Speaking to the BBC World at One programme yesterday, SCI President Paul Drechsler CBE said: ‘I’d say [Pioneer] is a “Plan Z”, rather than a “Plan B”. You would not find a university in the UK who would not be very strongly of the view that the Horizon programme is the best way to accelerate progress.’

‘The bottom line is [Horizon] is a brilliant way for our scientists to collaborate with scientists across the EU. And it is the fastest way to develop science and technology, and create societal benefit, health solutions and faster economic growth.’

When asked whether that would still be the case given the nature of the new relationship between the UK and EU, Drechsler responded: ‘We stepped off the train for two years. We can’t expect to get on the train at the same station – the train has moved on for two years. That’s what happens if you walk away from great opportunities – you lose advantage.’

It remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister will walk away from this opportunity.

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