A welcome guarantee of funding – but we still need to associate with Horizon Europe – now!

William Davis – Managing Director, Insight Media

First, the good news. Since we reported in our last blog about our participation in Horizon Europe, the UK government has announced an extension to the support it is offering UK organisations involved in successful EU consortia as well as those hoping to participate in further HE calls this year.

The updated guarantee means that the UK government will fund UK organisations involved in HE projects that are expected to start by the end of December 2022, ending months of uncertainty for those already a part of HE projects or for those involved in proposals currently being evaluated. UK organisations can now participate in Horizon Europe as associate partners and receive their funding through UK Research and Innovation.

For Insight Media, that announcement came as a huge relief and ended weeks of anxious waiting about whether or not we would receive any funding to participate in our project that was accepted for HE funding by the EU in December last year and is due to start this month. Until the extension to the guarantee was announced, we simply didn’t know whether we would be able to afford to participate in our new project because the topic was not part of the original guarantee and the UK had still not become an associate country to Horizon Europe.

As well as sleepless nights for us here in Bristol, that situation was also making our EU partners nervous about possible delays to the start date or giving them headaches about having to find a new partner at the last minute to take over our role in the project – not a good situation all round.

So, at least we now have some degree of certainty and hundreds of organisations like Insight Media can sign their consortium agreements and get on with what they do best with their colleagues all over Europe.

But it’s not all good news I’m afraid. The UK and the EU still appear to be at loggerheads with the UK’s association to Horizon Europe and, with the guarantee of funding by UKRI only lasting until the end of 2022, we are now in the position where EU partners are perhaps thinking twice about taking the risk of including UK organisation and universities in forthcoming proposals when the UK’s future participation in HE is still so uncertain.

Meanwhile, we have worrying messages emerging from the UK government. It continues to state its position of wanting to associate with Horizon Europe, which is reassuring. Science, Research and Innovation Minister George Freeman recently wrote: “The government’s position remains, as it has always been, to associate to Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom. We continue to hope that will be possible soon.”

But he also states that the “the UK cannot wait forever” and makes it clear that nothing is a given in terms of the UK’s future in EU funding programmes despite its determination to associate. “Given the ongoing delay to our association,” he writes, “it is only right and responsible that we are prepared for all outcomes, and to ensure we deliver what is in the best interest of the UK sector”. He talks of plans that may surface should association not be possible. The government, he writes, is looking at “a bold and ambitious longer-term offer that delivers many of the benefits of Horizon association, and additional benefits, through wider global participation, and even stronger industry and SME engagement.”

For many organisations like Insight Media, this is worrying. While it is, of course, sensible to plan for all eventualities, such brinkmanship in claiming that the UK cannot wait forever and that it will have to sail its own research course that is somehow better that Horizon Europe is wishful, long-term thinking at best. In truth, it is unlikely to materialise with quite such ease and while it is being developed, UK organisations will be left out in the European cold unable to receive funding through the EU, reliant on further extensions to the guarantee fund and ever more distant from the minds of EU project consortia builders, nervous of taking a risk when such uncertainty exists.

Of course, the EU itself has a big part to play here, too, and could, if it wanted, stop toying with the UK’s future in Horizon Europe and not use association as a tool with which to shape what remains to be agreed between the UK and the EU post-Brexit.

The UK’s participation in European research should not be used as this political football, by either side. It is too important for us all. The extended guarantee is welcome, but the ongoing wrangling over association is not. Our association to Horizon Europe, Euratom R&T and Copernicus should be agreed right now and let’s all just “stick to science”.

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