The catch-22 with funding and Horizon Europe

Collage of images depicting different types of research

Despite widespread pressures arising from the delayed decision on any UK association to the Horizon Europe programme, there is cause for optimism.

From my years working with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) I have learned that research and innovation is both a team sport and a long-term endeavour.

World-leading research and innovation needs funding to both develop and bring together brilliant minds. Those teams need funding certainty for long enough to not only form but perform with the resources and infrastructure to deliver the impact we all desire.

Under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation agreement that came into force in May 2021, it was agreed that the UK would associate with the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme.

The protocol covering the UK’s association to the research programme remains in draft, and so we are not able to associate. It would appear that we are both tied in and unable to associate at the same time.

This dual state is unhelpful for researchers

The European Commission has linked the adoption of the protocol for UK association with Horizon Europe to the resolution of differences over the implementation of the withdrawal agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol.

The UK government’s next step may be to take the dispute over Horizon Europe to arbitration, a process that could take up to 130 or even 160 days.

There has been no public announcement that arbitration has been initiated, so it could be that, until at least the middle of April 2023, we are both agreed that we will associate, but are not able to associate at the same time.

This duality of states is a political conundrum, but, more critically, it is unhelpful for the research and innovation community in both the UK and internationally.

Government is committed to invest large sums

The government is committed to investing significant sums in research undertaken with EU partners. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has earmarked £6.8 billion for ‘UK contribution to EU programmes’. We are talking about large chunks of money this financial year and for the subsequent 2 years of the spending review period.

I believe everyone aspires to use that money rather than lose it.

The then Science Minister, Nusrat Ghani, confirmed in October that the £6.8 billion was ‘ringfenced’ and that, were association not to occur, the entire sum would fund ‘plan b’.

‘Plan a’ is to associate, but we cannot yet spend the money via that route.

Funding guarantee has led to £500 million in awards

We could spend the money on domestic alternatives to association, and that is being done to some extent via the government’s funding guarantee.

The guarantee is available to successful UK applicants to Horizon Europe who are ’unable to sign grant agreements with the EU prior to formalisation of the UK’s association to the programme‘.

It is for the full value of the funding awarded under the Horizon Europe programme, at their UK host institution, for the lifetime of the grant.

The team involved has made huge efforts and has so far issued grants worth more than £500 million. It continues to remain an option whilst we seek to implement longer term solutions.

However, that is not the whole story. The money that the government has committed can only be spent once. Should we associate, it will need to be available from the point of association to fund awards made under that association.

Research and innovation needs long-term funding

As I said earlier, research and innovation is a long-term endeavour. There is a mismatch between providing short term funding ahead of potential association and the need to provide funding for research over long periods.

With public money we are constrained to spending it in the years it is made available. As always, UKRI’s challenge is to extract value for money for the taxpayer from those funds we do commit at short notice, delivering real impact for research and innovation, without committing large sums for many years to come when it may be needed to fund association.

Whilst I have shared  facts that are already in the public domain, I think it is important to tell the story in a coherent way that explains the catch-22 situation we find ourselves in.

Work is going on to resolve this

Like any iceberg, it is easy to focus on that small bit above the surface. I can assure you there is a huge amount of work going on beneath the surface to try to resolve the situation and ensure that, if it is ultimately decided not to associate, then there are some great alternatives covering talent, global, and end-to-end innovation schemes supported by investment in research and development systems

Despite the considerable pressure facing many during this phase, we should resist any temptation to despair. I remain optimistic, not because there is a quick and simple resolution, but because I see the passion, commitment and energy from all involved to deliver for the research and innovation community.

With that dedication and determination, we will move from this position of both association and non-association to a point of clarity and investment.

Whilst the current position is painful, the guarantee is providing some relief and, as other opportunities arise to alleviate the situation, I am sure all involved will capitalise on them.

We all know what was achieved in the tremendous response to funding research and innovation for COVID-19 and, where there are opportunities to make a difference, UKRI will not hesitate.

Top image:  Credit: UK Research and Innovation

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