While the UK’s association to the R&I funding program was agreed in the deal to leave the EU, final sign off has not been completed. Sides cite difficulties around the Northern Ireland protocol for holding up proceedings, with each blaming the other.
Education groups including UUKi, EPFL and ETH Zurich launched a #SticktoScience campaign earlier this year, seeking to put collaboration in science before politics and create an R&I landscape that is “free from political barriers”.
UUK has warned that the UK is “close to the precipice” of leaving the program, and the Russell Group has said that the window for association is “closing, and closing fast”.
Now the UK’s minister for Science, George Freeman, has confirmed that an alternative program will soon be set out.
“We do have a plan B, which I’m shortly to start to unveil and publicise, but we’ve been holding because we’ve been waiting for the EU to honour the agreement,” he told the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4.
Freeman accused the EU of “hitting us on science” due to ongoing issues around a trade-and-customs border through the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“Over the last six, seven months, I’ve been working my way round Europe. We have huge support across member states,” Freeman continued.
“You can’t find anyone in Europe in research who doesn’t want the Brits in Horizon. And we believe that [is because] yes, we’ll put £15 billion in over the next 10 years… but much more importantly, the intellectual and the academic research excellence that we bring is hugely respected, and rightly so.”
The minister emphasised that the UK does “not want to walk away”.
“Time is running out. I can’t allow UK researchers and European researchers in the UK to be benched, parked and not allowed to participate,” he said, accusing the EU of “playing hardball”.
“If we don’t get some signal in the next few weeks and months, we cannot let it be two years where we’re locked out, [we’ll leave].”
Researchers in the UK with awards under the Horizon program have been warned by the EU that they need to relocate their research to an EU country, or risk having the funding cancelled, Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, added.
“We’re now in limbo land,” he said. “We’re now in a pretty chaotic situation…
“We’ve listened very carefully to all the researchers who value the European Research Council”
“There has to be a plan B. We can’t go on in a vacuum not knowing exactly what’s going to happen,” Smith noted.
Like the Horizon program, the £15bn UK initiative will have three pillars, Freeman hinted.
“We’ve listened very carefully to all the researchers who value the European Research Council and it’s very clear that we need to have longer fellowships, more prestigious fellowships, global fellowships, these aren’t just little British fellowships, they are global fellowship that go into deep science and multidisciplinary science.”
Smith added that how funding will be spent under the new UK program is unclear.
“What is not clear is that we committed something of the order of £2 billion a year as the fee for association [to Horizon] and as of the moment there is no clarity on how and where that money will be spent in the various ingredients. So I really do look forward to clarity from the minister as to where that £2bn is going.”
The Group of Eight in Australia recently urged the new Albanese administration to commit to supporting Australian researchers access to the Horizon Europe program.