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No agreement on the Horizon − a no-win situation for the UK, the EU and European research

  • 7 April 2022
  • By Marco Cavallaro

This blog was kindly contributed by Marco Cavallaro, a doctoral student at the University of Lugano in Switzerland.

In the second year of the Horizon Europe programme, the United Kingdom (UK) is still not formally associated with the largest research and innovation funding programme in the world. Although they remain eligible to apply, UK-based researchers and institutions cannot currently sign grant agreements for Horizon Europe projects and receive funding from the European Commission. The commitment of the UK Government to fund all UK-based participants reassures the researchers concerned, but adds layers of bureaucracy and resources that could be avoided if the UK was associated with the programme, just like Norway, Israel and Turkey.

In sum, Brexit continues to jeopardise the position of the UK and its academic institutions as research destinations. This is notably reflected in the highly competitive European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Postdoctoral Fellowships. Both Horizon Europe funding schemes attract more than 10,000 ambitious applicants every year at the postdoctoral level.

Awarded by what is called the Champions League of European research, the ERC Starting Grants have a massive impact on symbolic reputation, be it at the researcher, institutional and even country levels. Before the Brexit vote, the UK was always the country with the highest share of applications. As shown in the chart below, this share kept decreasing after the vote. Since 2018, Germany is by far the preferred destination for applicants.

In the MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships, where mobility to another country is required, the share of applications to UK-based institutions also followed a downward trend until 2020. For the first time since the Brexit vote, this share increased in the 2021 call. This may be due, in part, to the exclusion of Swiss institutions from the call.

Nonetheless, despite Brexit-induced uncertainties, the UK remains the applicants’ preferred destination. This shows how top-ranked UK institutions, Oxbridge on the front line, continue to be attractive destinations for researchers.

The success rates of the UK in both schemes follow the same tendencies as the overall success rates. Luckily, Brexit did not seem to influence the evaluators’ judgements.

However, successful applicants who chose a UK-based host institution (46 in the ERC Starting Grants and 228 in the MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships) are uncertain if their funding will come from the European Commission or the UK’s government.

The case of Switzerland shows what can be expected if no deal is reached and the UK becomes a ‘third country’ not associated with the programme.

In May 2021, the European Commission relegated Switzerland to third-country status after the Swiss government unilaterally ended bilateral talks on an umbrella agreement regulating bilateral relations. Swiss-based researchers and institutions lost their eligibility to receive European Union (EU) funding for collaborative projects, along with their right to participate in prestigious individual grants awarded by the ERC and the MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships.

The European Commission invited successful ERC Starting Grant applicants who applied with a Swiss-host institution before the country’ exclusion to move to an institution in an EU or associated country, although the Swiss government was committed to funding them. This led other national funding agencies to ‘hunt’ for successful Swiss-based applicants who might decide to move to another country.

To fund successful ERC applicants who want to stay and attract researchers willing to join a Swiss university, the Swiss Government decided to provide national funding and launch a series of backup schemes with comparable requirements and evaluation criteria to the ERC and MSCA calls.

Such solutions can also be envisaged by the UK’s Government. However, compared to the full association, nationally funded backup schemes remain suboptimal.

On the one hand, national funding authorities must allocate extensive resources for organising the calls, evaluation, funding and monitoring procedures. On the other hand, such backup schemes do not carry the same prestige as ERC and MSCA grants. The value attached to these grants in terms of status and career perspectives at the European and global levels is hardly replicable in national funding schemes.

The number of applications with UK universities despite Brexit, along with the interest raised by the Swiss-funded Postdoctoral Fellowships, demonstrate the attractiveness of both countries’ higher education systems to European and non-European researchers. Excluding UK and Swiss universities from ERC and MSCA funding schemes can only damage the desirability and value attached to these grants. Moreover, Swiss and UK participation would bring extra funding to Horizon Europe’s budget and increase the size and visibility of the programme.

EU, UK and Swiss political actors must realise the damaging effects of such an unnecessary climate of uncertainty over the mid- to long term. The European research community is doing its part with the Stick to Science campaign, which promotes the UK and Swiss association to Horizon Europe and collected more than five thousand signatures. Using access to Horizon Europe as a ‘bargaining chip’ in non-related political disputes can only weaken Europe’s position in the global research and innovation landscape and put at risk the achievement of EU’s goals through research and innovation.

A year has passed since the publication of the first Horizon Europe calls. How many more years do we want to interfere with the free flow of researchers and knowledge across the continent and prevent European research from unleashing its full potential?

1 comment

  1. Iain Salisbury says:

    I discussed this in the Spring edition of the Salisbury Review. As I write (June 7), I’m happy to say the government has decided to cut its losses and give up.


    Given the proximity of Christmas and the rise of the omicron variant, few will have paid much attention to a December 22nd BBC News report concerning yet another “spat” with the EU. It may be over by the time you read this but the dispute itself tells us much about what to expect from the European Commission and the advisability, or otherwise, of Britain attempting any kind of collaboration.

    Horizon Europe is the Commission’s flagship funding programme for research and innovation, running from 2021 to 2027, with a budget of just under a hundred billion euros. British participation was confirmed in December 2020 and it had seemed one of the least controversial parts of the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has allocated nearly seven billion pounds to cover the British contribution until 2025. Yet British projects have gone unfunded and British scientists unpaid … because the people of Ulster have an appetite for English sausages. Although little could be less relevant to science policy than the wretched Northern Ireland Protocol, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” means that billion-euro initiatives can be held hostage over the tiniest chipolata.

    Last November, after nearly a year of obstruction on the part of the Commission, the European research and innovation community finally lost patience and issued a statement endorsed by more than a thousand universities, fifty-six academies of science and several thousand of the Continent’s most distinguished researchers, urging the EU to finalise British participation immediately. It stated that: “Further delays or even non-association would result in a missed opportunity and a major weakening of our collective research strength and competitiveness,” Professor Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities wrote that: “A further delay [in UK association] simply for political reasons is unacceptable.” But Ursula von der Leyen and her cronies remain obdurate – had they been disposed to listen to experts they’d have done so before the vaccine debacle. Any failure to kowtow to every last one of their dictats must be punished, irrespective of the damage that might do to Europe’s own interests. At the very least, this suggests that committing to projects under the purview of such a body is to hoist one’s own Damacletian sword.

    As I write, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has just advised that the Northern Ireland dispute could be resolved in the near future. We’ve heard it before. Whatever the outcome, I suggest that there are lessons here for our long-term relationship with what we may regard as a not altogether friendly power. A power, moreover, that has an erratic, incompetent, and unaccountable leadership.

    Indeed, Professor Deketelae goes on to suggest that the squabble is sending a discouraging message to other potential collaborators. Unfortunately, he’s left it a tad late to warn that the Commission’s bizarre values and priorities are very much to the detriment of the European people. Recep Erdogan’s human rights record has proved no barrier to Turkey becoming an associate member of Horizon Europe, together with such science superpowers Kosovo and Ukraine, but Switzerland is barred. Back in 1992, Swiss voters declined to join what was then the European Economic Community. Talks aimed at achieving a greater level of harmonisation were abandoned last summer after seven years. More than 120 arrangements had been agreed but the insatiate cormorant of Brussels remained unsatisfied. So, despite their experience with advanced and large-scale science projects, from medicine to nuclear physics, Swiss scientists and engineers are also out in the cold.

    Will the people of Europe come to regret the intellectual capacity that their lords and masters are discarding so casually? Well, Switzerland has two universities in the world’s top fifty. That may not seem impressive when viewed from this side of the Channel – Britain has eight with four in London alone – but the whole of the EU can only muster half a dozen. Moreover, EHL Zurich is rated at 15 while Europe’s finest, LMU Munich, comes in at 32. This puts it behind Edinburgh, LSE, UCL, Imperial College, Cambridge, and, at number one, Oxford. Back in 1966, I joined the first group to read physics at the then brand-new University of Warwick and, I’m delighted to say, in half a century it has already reached number 78 in the rankings. This is well ahead of France’s celebrated Sorbonne, which clocks-in at 88. Italy’s top University, Bologna, was founded in 1088 and has taken nearly a millennium to reach 178 while Spain barely makes it into the top 200, with Barcelona at 193. Incidentally, those tempted to write-off the United States should note that, including three in Canada, North America accounts for more than half of the world’s top fifty seats of learning. Much innovation happens outside universities, of course, but Professor Deketelae and his colleagues certainly have good reason for concern.

    But what might Britain be missing? While the programme includes some well-found scientific institutions which I would be loath for us to abandon, for the most part these Euro-initiatives have been massively bureaucratic money-pits that have diverted funds from dozens, perhaps hundreds, of domestic projects. I say “initiatives” because Horizon Europe is far from the first and it is possible by now to gauge their effectiveness. In their present form, they began in Lisbon, a few years before Prime Minister Gordon Brown skulked around the city hoping nobody back home would notice him signing-away our birthright with the eponymous treaty.

    The so-called “Lisbon Strategy” was originally set out by the European Council in March 2000. It was intended to make the EU “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion” by 2010. None of these goals was achieved. It was superseded by Horizon 2020, a 10-year programme proposed by what had become the European Commission for “the advancement of the economy of the European Union”. It aimed at “smart, sustainable, inclusive growth” with greater coordination of national and European policy. Since then, the number of EU companies in the world’s top forty has gone from ten to two, with none in the first thirty. Now we have Horizon Europe to “bolster European champions”, whatever they are. Once again, “The strategic planning process will focus in particular on the global challenges and European industrial competitiveness”. There is no record that Einstein actually did say that insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result, as is often attributed, but the Commission is clearly at a loss for ideas. In this instance, it doesn’t take a Nobel Laureate to recognise a fiscal black-hole.

    Sending billions to the Byzantine bureaucracy of Brussels, which can then be withheld on a whim, is clearly untenable and non-association would appear to be Britain’s best option. In the fullness of time, it may be possible to negotiate collaboration on a case by case basis. When it comes to advanced pure science, such as astronomical observatories, there are plenty of projects outside Europe that would welcome UK participation. And Horizon Europe’s half-baked industrial policy, having failed repeatedly in the past, holds few attractions in the present. It is a curious “champion” that needs constant “bolstering” from the taxpayer. In these days of low interest rates there is no shortage of cash for plausible investments while a new generation of venture capitalists is happy to pursue even the most far-fetched ideas, from quantum computing to landing on Mars. As a physicist, I still find it hard to imagine how fusion power could be a commercial proposition but several private projects are underway. British and European firms should be encouraged to compete for investment and market-share rather than for rent-seeking government handouts.

    History furnishes some lessons. In the 1980s, for example, many in America became alarmed at Japanese success with the MSX personal computer system. They were excellent machines – I owned one myself. Naturally there were calls for the US government to fund domestic competitors such as Apple, whose fortunes back then seemed to be on the wane. However, President Regan felt that there was little prospect of politicians and civil servants second-guessing the market so the late Steve Jobs was left to his own devices. Literally. I doubt that any committee of government bureaucrats would have come up with the iPhone.

    Iain Salisbury, retired physicist, Edgbaston

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