EU researchers demand action on UK association to Horizon

Leading members of the European Union’s research and innovation community have issued a joint open letter to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, calling for “swift and decisive action” to end the current impasse over achieving UK association to Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95 billion (US$110 billion) research and innovation programme for 2021-27.

The signatories include representatives of more than 1,000 universities, 56 academies of science and 33 rectors’ associations.

They also represent thousands of Europe’s most distinguished researchers, including more than 10,000 grantees of the European Research Council, and more than 20,000 holders of a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action Award, as well as doctoral candidates in almost every member state.

Collectively they are demanding UK full association as soon as possible. They warn that the absence of a clear timeline for finalising UK association is now causing increasing concern.

“This lingering uncertainty risks endangering current and future plans for collaboration,” they say.

“We are rapidly approaching a crunch point. With the first Horizon Europe grant agreements approaching and new calls soon to be launched, UK association must be finalised without further delay,” the letter says.

“Now is the time for swift and decisive action. Further delays or even non-association would result in a missed opportunity and a major weakening of our collective research strength and competitiveness.

“We urge the European Commission and UK Government to work towards a successful UK association to Horizon Europe, to safeguard this valuable and mutually beneficial R&I [research and innovation] cooperation.”

The current impasse is tied to the wrangling over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the arrangement that allows Northern Ireland access to the European Single Market but creates the need for checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, which some describe as placing an economic border in the Irish Sea.

EU Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel in October, in an interview with Science|Business, confirmed that the UK can’t join Horizon Europe until “transversal issues” have been settled, having previously warned MEPs that the UK’s political association to Horizon Europe could become embroiled in disagreements over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to “get Brexit done”, but since Brexit has been trying to get it changed. UK Science Minister George Freeman says there is a Plan B if the EU does not allow the UK to join Horizon Europe. But the UK’s Chancellor Rishi Sunak set aside £6.9 billion (US$9.4 billion) for its contribution to Horizon Europe until 2025 in the Budget last week.

The EU knowledge community collectively welcomed the provision in Protocol I of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe. The subsequent Q&A document from the European Commission provided them with the reassurance that UK entities could apply with EU partners for the first multi-beneficiary calls.

“Based on the Protocol [of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement] and those reassurances, for the past 10 months our universities, businesses and research institutions have been working with UK partners with a shared vision and in good faith that the UK would soon be a full associate member,” they said.

Professor Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), said the UK is a major research and innovation powerhouse with some of the most prominent research-intensive universities in the world.

“Over the past decades, UK and EU universities have been tackling shared challenges and building close partnerships through the EU research framework programmes.

“A quick association of the UK to Horizon Europe is vital to continue these close collaborations and to tackle the many societal challenges that lie in front of us. A further delay simply for political reasons is unacceptable. Just like this is the case for Switzerland.”

Switzerland was relegated to third country status in July after rows over its payments to the EU Cohesion Fund and negotiations on the future shape of the relationship between the EU and Switzerland.

Professor Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said: “If UK association to Horizon Europe is not realised, the capacity of science and innovation in the UK and in the EU are both weakened.

“If Horizon Europe association is achieved for the EU’s closest and strongest science partners, the UK (and also Switzerland), we enhance the capacity of researchers to address our complex societal challenges together – and we make Horizon Europe even more attractive to other third countries to associate.”

German U15’s Secretary General Dr Jan Wöpking said: “The UK is a world leader in science. So is the EU. British universities are among the closest, most trusted and strongest partners that our universities have. We will only solve the crucial challenges the world is facing by combining our strengths in research and innovation.

“We have no time to lose. The UK’s association process should be finalised as soon as possible. The same holds for Switzerland.”

UDICE Secretary General Dr Hélène Jacquet said: “As French leading research-intensive universities, UDICE members are all deeply involved in long-lasting and fruitful scientific partnerships with universities in the UK. These partnerships are crucial to address major challenges such as climate change, digital transformation of our economies or global health.

“Strong collaborations between universities in the EU and in the UK lead to more knowledge, more discoveries, more innovation to the benefit of European citizens’ well-being and prosperity.”

The European University Association (EUA) said the letter follows on from the October statement from the EUA and its collective members, the national rectors’ conferences, regarding association of the UK to Horizon Europe.

It stressed that Horizon Europe “must not become a bargaining chip” in the current disagreements between the EU and the UK over implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator at the EUA, told University World News that officially everybody wants UK association to go ahead. But a specialised committee needs to finish the paperwork and so far it hasn’t even met.

“They could even do this by email, but they have not and no one tells us why; there is no transparency. They say there is a political context, everything needs to be aligned, which makes you think they are holding back on Horizon because they want to squeeze the British on other issues like Northern Ireland and fisheries.

“But if you squeeze the British, you squeeze yourselves.”

Moral issue

Jorgensen said it is a moral issue because last year the commission gave assurances to researchers within universities that they could go ahead and work with their British partners.

“Now they are backtracking, which is pretty serious because the UK is a pretty important partner for universities around Europe, particularly in the Horizon programme.”

He said the new calls have been coming in and people were told they could go ahead and make consortia with British partners in them and now, when the time comes to do grant agreements, the paperwork is not done on the political side.

“The lack of transparency from the European Commission adds to the insecurity. We have been fighting insecurity for five years [since the Brexit referendum in the UK], but we were told everything is now OK and now we get this unnecessary insecurity.”

The signal from the British that there is a “Plan B” is adding to these concerns.

He said: “We can see the British making overtures to the Nordics, the Germans and Dutch and further splitting the European Research Area.

“If the British have their own instrument, a ‘Global Britain’ super league for cooperation, you can imagine how messy that would be.

“We can see unhealthy competition coming from this and confusion.”

He believes such a gambit could never actually work because the EU “has the instrument for multilateral cooperation and it’s the only kind in the world that actually works”. The British alternative “would never work without a multilateral structure to support it”.

But he warned that if the commission’s failure to finalise association for the UK led to them pursuing Plan B, it would create a “half-functioning competitor on the outside, to the detriment of everybody”.

“Britain would embark on something that most likely would not work and Europe would lose a partner on the inside that would strengthen the association. It is not well thought out as a political strategy.”