Lack of political will could undermine UK’s plan B

On 20 July, the UK government announced a set of transitional measures to support researchers applying for Horizon Europe grants in the absence of association to the programme. The government also formally revealed the shape of a UK alternative if association to Horizon Europe does not materialise.

The transitional measures cover not only holders of successful bids, but also all those in the process of applying to open calls under Horizon. While this cannot resolve the question of what will happen to project coordinators, the set of measures announced is comprehensive and welcome. There is every reason for scientists in the UK and the EU to collaborate through Horizon Europe.

Importantly, we now also know the bare bones of a UK alternative scheme to Horizon Europe. Structurally, this scheme looks remarkably like Horizon, with three pillars plus a fourth strand to strengthen the research and innovation system.

Horizon UK?

The first ‘top talent’ pillar will build on the success of the EU programmes for individuals, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and European Research Council, promising to retain and attract the best researchers with enhanced funding and flexibility.

The second pillar, ‘end-to-end innovation’, will foster radical innovation. Modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it will attempt to foster high-risk innovation with minimal bureaucracy. This will be guided by UK strategic priorities, investing in new and emerging technologies to accelerate commercialisation and the uptake of innovation.

The third pillar will be a challenge-led fund for collaborative research. It will be open for bottom-up collaboration with scientists from partner countries worldwide. It will also enable scientists to access Horizon Europe as third-country collaborators.

Finally, a fourth strand sets out support for enhancing research infrastructure, including digital capacities.

The familiarity of these alternatives to Horizon Europe seems aimed at making it as easy as possible for researchers—from the UK, the EU and elsewhere—to apply.

However, the differences will matter hugely. As Adrian Smith and Graeme Reid’s 2019 report for the UK government noted, Horizon Europe exists alongside European Structural and Regional Funds. The former funds research based on excellence, while the latter supports regional capacity-building, including in science.

Will there be a UK equivalent to structural funds running alongside the new R&D programme? The government’s commitment to reducing regional inequality would suggest so, but there is no evidence that this will be forthcoming.

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Published July 25, 2022 1:28 PM - Last modified July 25, 2022 1:28 PM