The UK was set to take part in the bloc’s £80billion programme as part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). But the EU told Britain it cannot take part until it resolves the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute. Now, UK-based researchers who were promised Horizon Europe grants face losing out on promised funds, and collaboration with European partners could be off the cards if no new agreement with the EU is reached.
But not all hope is lost as, according to Vivienne Stern, head of Universities UK, Britain looks like it will opt for a “bigger, better” Plan B.
It comes after Universities UK, which represents 140 universities up and down the country, warned this week that the UK’s association with Horizon Europe is “close to the precipice”.
The Vice Chancellor of Swansea University Paul Boyle wrote a letter on behlf of Universities UK addressed to European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, urging him to settle the dispute so Britain can re-join the programme.
Ms Stern said that this is “not a bluff” and added she would be “really surprised” if Britain was still pushing for association six months down the line.
Ms Stern said: “We’re increasingly of the view that Plan B is the most likely destination.
“I don’t see any cause to be optimistic that it’s going to unblock in the time we’ve got left.”
She added that there is now “quite detailed planning” to Horizon Europe’s alternative, which has reportedly intensified in recent weeks, with plans set to be made public in the coming weeks.
One possible option draws from a plan drafted up in 2019 when it was feared Horizon Europe participation would be off the cards in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
It was drawn up by Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, and civil servant Graeme Reid.
And, according to the report, the plan would not be to exactly replicate the Horizon Europe mechanism.
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The report reads: “We are not convinced that a persuasive case can be made for sizeable levels of public spending on activities that replicate, line by line, EU research and innovation arrangements in the UK.”
But as certain institutions and researchers had been expecting European grants and had grown reliant on Horizon funding, this could cause some problems.
Ms Stern reassured: “I think you’ll see things that are about getting money into the system rapidly and as efficiently as possible.”
She also suggested instead of the grants that were supposed by the European Research Council (ERC), Horizon’s main funding mechanism, it can be expected that Plan B will deliver “bigger, better, faster, longer” grants.
Science Minister George Freeman also claims he has own “bold Plan B”.
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Mr Freeman has hinted that the plan will involve teaming up with science and innovation powerhouses like our Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US) partners, as well as countries like Japan.
In an appearance before the Science and Technology Committee earlier this year, Mr Freeman agreed that universities in the US, Australia and Asia are of “better quality” than those in Europe.
And the Science Minister already appears to be making progress in striking up partnerships with non-EU countries.
He has been meeting with counterparts across the globe, including Switzerland (which has also been banned from Horizon Europe over a political dispute), Israel and Sweden.
And the UK science community is stressing the UK needs to get on with Plan B as the delay has dragged on for too long.
Ludovic Thilly, chair of the executive board at Coimbra Group, said: “We cannot accept any longer that scientific cooperation be held hostage to bilateral politics.”