UK ministers have been urged to immediately secure the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe, the EU’s multi-billion-euro research programme, following reports that Rishi Sunak’s administration is preparing an alternative UK-led scheme.
In a letter on Tuesday (7 March), Scotland’s Higher and Further Education Minister Jamie Hepburn wrote to the UK’s science and technology secretary Michelle Donelan, urging her to “open discussions on legal association to Horizon as soon as possible” to formalise access to Horizon Europe.
The UK has been shut out of the €95.5 billion programme for two years after the European Commission tied the association status provided for by the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and EU to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Following the announcement last week of the ‘Windsor Framework’ agreement with the EU on the protocol, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would “immediately” start the process of finalising the UK’s associate member status.
Hepburn added that he was “also concerned that the UK government appears to be working on the assumption that if we succeed in associating to the Horizon Europe programme, participation will be costed from the point of re-entry, although this has never been guaranteed”.
However, Donelan said on Monday a deal for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe would need to be on “acceptable and favourable terms” and declined to guarantee that the UK will definitely join the programme.
That follows reports that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak favours an alternative UK-led programme involving collaboration with non-EU as well as European nations.
Donelan’s department also confirmed that it had extended until June a promise to pay researchers for grants won from Horizon Europe.
The impasse over Horizon Europe access prompted UK ministers to promise that an alternative national research and development fund would be set up and that researchers and businesses would receive at least as much money as they would have done from the EU programme over the 2021-27 EU budget period.
Last week, the government revealed that £1.6 billion of funding originally allocated by the government to facilitate association to EU programmes has instead been claimed back by the Treasury, a move greeted with dismay by the UK research community.
The ‘Windsor Framework’ is likely to take several months to be ratified, with a UK parliament vote unlikely to be held before the end of April. UK officials have played down the prospect of the country’s universities and researchers being able to access Horizon funding any time soon.
“It’s hard to wave a magic wand and just fix all of that,” said one UK official dealing with EU affairs, pointing to the fact that their researchers have been shut out from the programme for two years and “have been quite disadvantaged”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]