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Over the Horizon

  • 27 July 2020
  • By Sarah Main and Graeme Reid

This blog was kindly contributed by Sarah Main, Executive Director of CaSE and Professor Graeme Reid, Chair of Science and Research Policy at UCL. You can find them both on Twitter @drsarahmain and @GraemeTR .

Higher education and research organisations across Europe have called for continued UK participation in EU programmes such as Horizon Europe. Earlier this year, European and UK organisations, including national university representative bodies from across Europe, Universities UK, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), joined forces in a statement that said:

We wish to continue to work together following the departure of the UK from the European Union. We call on our national governments and the European Commission to act on the commitments of the political declaration and work swiftly to agree a basis for continued collaboration through the UK’s full association to Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ …

This is consistent with earlier reports from CaSE, dating back to 2015, which found overwhelming support from research and innovation organisations across the UK for continued association with EU R&D programmes.

In its recent R&D roadmap, the UK Government re-stated its commitment to raise R&D investment to unprecedented levels. It also re-stated its ambition to associate with Horizon Europe and the separate Euratom programme, saying:

It is our ambition to fully associate to both programmes if we can agree a fair and balanced deal, but we will make a final decision once it is clear whether such terms can be reached. ….

Under all scenarios, it is our aim that UK organisations and entities continue to participate in Horizon Europe collaborative projects open to third countries, as well as in wider international collaborations.

The UK Government commissioned advice in 2019 on future frameworks for international collaboration, not least to inform its response to the scenario that the UK and the EU could not reach an agreement on continued association. The resulting Smith-Reid review recommended reforms to funding arrangements and immigration policy. Government has already followed the language of that review in its announcement of Global Talent Visas and in plans for agile funding set out in the R&D roadmap. The UK Government’s roadmap also follows the Smith-Reid review in providing assurances of funding to replace EU research support in the event that the UK does not associate with EU programmes:

If we do not formally associate to Horizon Europe or Euratom R&T, we will implement ambitious alternatives as quickly as possible from January 2021 and address the funding gap.

The European Commission has emphasised consistently throughout the Brexit process that a deal on the UK’s future relationship with the EU can only be agreed in a single package with no separate deal for research or any other domain. In EU terminology: ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

This means that if high-level sticking points between the Commission and UK Government, such as on fishing rights and the ‘level-playing field’, are not resolved then this is likely to block a deal on anything else, including association with Horizon Europe, despite strong support from the research and innovation community in the UK and Europe.

Despite the enthusiasm of researchers, therefore, association with Horizon Europe is subject to the negotiations. Negotiations on participation in research programmes are not as contentious or high profile as other domains. However, terms and costs remain to be agreed. These include proposals that the UK should not be a net beneficiary of the programme, fees for participation and governance arrangements including the role of EU institutions in the UK and vice versa.

Practical approaches to securing a positive outcome have been put forward recently in a joint statement led by the Wellcome Trust. The progress of the negotiations overall may well determine the degree of flexibility on both sides in resolving these issues.

Much of attention has focused on association with EU programmes for research, innovation and student exchanges. But in many parts of the UK, European Structural and Investment Funds such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) have played vital roles in R&D, particularly in supporting universities’ role in economic development.

Structural funds are not part of the negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The end to UK participation in structural funding was signalled when we left the EU. However, in its recent report, The Power of Place, CaSE found that:

A significant proportion of these [EU structural] funds have historically been allocated for research and innovation, helping to support a wide array of projects building research capacity across the UK.

EU structural funds were distributed on the basis of economic need rather than research excellence so they had a different geographic distribution to other government support for research and innovation. This added diversity to the funding landscape. Significant concentrations of ERDF for R&D have become established in some parts of the country. For example, CaSE’s Power of Place report found that:

EU structural funds significantly contribute to developing research capacity and infrastructure in Wales. The Learned Society of Wales has shown that the per capita contribution of ERDF to research and innovation in Wales is €125 per capita: five times the UK average of €23 per capita.

Another characteristic of EU structural funds was that they were allocated by the European Commission to devolved governments and regional authorities, largely bypassing central UK Government. The R&D roadmap from BEIS makes no mention of EU structural funds or their replacement, the widely anticipated Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF). However, a letter from the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government states that:

Now we have left the European Union, we will create a UKSPF which binds together the whole of the United Kingdom, tackling inequality and deprivation in each of our four nations. Decisions on the fund will need to be made through a cross-Government Spending Review and we will set out further plans for the fund later this year.

That letter makes no mention of universities or research. Without reading too much into the text, it also seems that the UK government has not yet agreed to devolving the administration of this new funding to regional or national levels within the UK, nor to an R&D dimension of the UKSPF.

Nick Hillman in his essay, Universities and Brexit: past, present and future, observed that the forces of internationalism and localism will shape the future of UK higher education. We need funding programmes that enable UK research to be both internationally collaborative and of benefit to local communities. The Shared Prosperity Fund and future participation in Horizon Europe could help meet this need.

For several decades, universities in this country rightly engaged with Brussels on key EU funding decisions. Now that we have left the EU, many more decisions – including those on the future of the Shared Prosperity Fund – will be made in the UK. Even if the UK continues to associate with Horizon Europe, the cost of participation will be met by the Treasury, quite possibly at the expense of UK programmes.

Now is the time for the higher education and research community to engage in new discussions with Government about new funding arrangements. These discussions will take us into unfamiliar but important territory. They will help define the shape and scale of international collaboration, the role of universities in the Government’s important levelling up agenda and alternatives to the EU support for research at the frontiers of knowledge. These discussions are urgent and they are important.

1 comment

  1. Richard Barr says:

    When it comes to chemists and other highly trained science-based personnel in industry, I believe engineering employers in the UK have not yet learned to take full advantage of the facilities that are available for securing personnel of sound scientific training.

    However, the appliance of science in engineering companies remains every bit as important as it was at the beginning of the 20th Century during the industrial revolution.

    So why do we still have a divide between academic science and the engineering industries?
    I guess that of the many complexities in a multi-functioning society, one is the ability to communicate to different stakeholders such as industry, government and educational.

    In-depth explanations, fact-based descriptions and the ability to give a meticulously scientific account will ensure the correct discussion is had towards achieving the correct execution. Of course, any assessment of these complexities is not intended as criticism or judgement, but I believe that the link across these three faculties is crucial for success…it needs the right people asking the right questions to the right audience.

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