The UK sets a ‘Plan B’ in motion: this is what we know so far about the Horizon Europe alternative

The prospects were initially positive for researchers from the United Kingdom (UK) when it came to Horizon Europe association not long after Brexit. In 2020, the negotiations between the European Union (EU) and the UK resulted in a deal: the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The deal, which entered into force in May 2021, would guarantee UK participation in certain Horizon Europe programs. Unfortunately, political tensions have come in the way and UK participation is uncertain as the agreement is still not finalized. The country is in dire need of a ‘Plan B’ in order to support its researchers and UK science if the UK and EU do not come to an agreement. This is what we know so far.

The latest developments regarding Horizon Europe participation

Although the UK still very much wants to associate to Horizon Europe, this has been blocked by the European Commission (EC) until frictions over the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved. This pertains to disagreements between the EU and UK government on how to implement a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the latter being part of the EU. UK participation in Horizon Europe is currently being used as a bargaining chip in these political negotiations.

The UK not being able to participate quickly lead to problems. Researchers who were awarded certain grants may now see these get cancelled. For example, recipients of the ERC grants are in fear of losing millions of funding unless the UK formalizes its association to Horizon Europe or if they move to the EU or an associated country. Fortunately, as of 1 September 2022, the UK government has announced to extend its financial support to Horizon Europe applicants. This will ensure that eligible, successful UK applicants will continue to be guaranteed funding. This concerns all Horizon Europe calls that close on or before 31 December 2022.

Moreover, experts argue that it will become more difficult to attract scientist to the UK. A previously launched visa-scheme to facilitate scientists in relocating to the UK has been unsuccessful. This is mostly due to post-Brexit discussions and overall policy regarding immigration. Next to that, foreign scientists have been requesting shorter contracts, as the visa system for longer term contracts is too expensive.

The UK sets Plan B in motion

The UK is also working on a plan that should offer a solution in the future. It’s so called Plan B: a two-part plan in order to 1) steady the ship and 2) offer a long-term alternative.

Steadying the ship

The UK will plough money into a range of existing schemes to cushion the blow. There will be money for various fellowship schemes and extra cash will flow to innovation programmes, such as the global Eureka Network. The latter will also help businesses maintain existing links with both European and other foreign partners. Also, the UK pledges to look at applications from mono-beneficiary schemes, such as ERC and EIC, in case they end up not being evaluated if the UK pulls out of Horizon Europe association.

Long-term alternative

The abovementioned measures are designed as a bridge to the creation of a UK alternative to Horizon Europe. This will include a UK version of the ERC. In addition, it will support collaborations between researchers, including continued funding for UK researchers that join Horizon Europe consortia as third country participants.

The fall of Johnson

The current developments coincide with the fall of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, fueling uncertainties. After a tight race between foreign secretary Liz Truss and former chancellor Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss was elected. Initially, science and research seemed to have little to no priority within the battle for leadership. However, on 16 August 2022 the UK, set in motion by Liz Truss, launched a legal case against the EU over the Horizon Europe association. Liz Truss states: “The EU is in clear breach of our agreement, repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation by refusing to finalize access to these important programs. We cannot allow this to continue.” This case will reach conclusion by the end of the year.

Prospects for the future

The UK has been, and still is, a valuable contributor to the excellence of Horizon Europe. One can only hope this value outweighs political squabbles. For now UK researchers will have to wait for either the results of legal actions, as well as follow-up by Truss, or for Plan B to be set in motion. Whatever the outcome, the upcoming months will hopefully shed some light on the future of UK science in Europe.

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