UK universities on brink of losing Horizon research and funding

Political problems, notably the Northern Ireland Protocol, are continuing to sideline science and thwart United Kingdom association with Horizon Europe. University leaders warned this week of teetering on the brink of losing Horizon, while the European Research Council suggested a “miracle” might be required for association to occur.

At the 20th anniversary conference of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), being held from 19-20 May in Leiden in the Netherlands, Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of 24 top UK universities, said: “We all know there is a point at which the UK can no longer hold on and alternative arrangements will need to be put in place.

“I can tell you today that the window for association is closing, and closing fast. Indeed, it increasingly feels as if we are right on the brink, with association to be snatched away before the summer.” British universities stand to lose more than US$100 million in funding recently awarded under Horizon Europe, the European Union’s massive research framework.

In a special interview series published by LERU ahead of the conference, University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said science and technology were being ignored in the light of political problems and “we are not hearing positive signals” on Horizon.

The LERU conference in Leiden – the European City of Science 2022 – has as its theme the role of research-intensive universities in a resilient and sustainable society. However, current politics will also affect LERU, which has 23 renowned university members in 12 European countries. Five of its universities are in the UK – Cambridge, Edinburgh, Imperial College London, Oxford and University College London – and their future role must be in question.

Russell Group message

The message from the Russell Group to European research leaders was that UK failure to associate with Horizon Europe would be bad news for research and innovation. In a speech on Friday, Tim Bradshaw called for LERU leaders to make the case for UK association with their governments and European Commission officials in Brussels.

Colleagues and universities in Britain and across Europe “pressed hard for association to Horizon Europe to be included in the Brexit deal and for the UK government to set out long-term, ring-fenced funding to support our participation. The fact that these things happened shows that all of our governments recognise the value of research and development and the importance of European partnerships for everyone involved.”

Bradshaw added: “The UK government is right to be considering ‘Plan B’ options as a fallback and our universities are ready to work to make a success of any alternative arrangements should they be needed.

“However, make no mistake: failure to move forward with UK association would be bad news for research and a second-best outcome for both the UK and the EU.”

Mostly, though, it will be disadvantageous for UK institutions.

As reported in University World News, the European Research Council announced its most recent Horizon grants on 27 April, from the 2021 grants competition. Funding of €624 million (US$655 million) is going to 253 leading researchers across Europe. Nearly a fifth will be conducted at British institutions, including 38 at leading Russell Group universities.

Knowledge must speak to policy

Cambridge University’s Professor Stephen Toope said in the LERU interview, written by Ian Mundell and published on 18 May, that the knowledge universities produce can make a vital contribution to resilient and sustainable societies – but only if it has a direct line to decision-making.

“One of the greatest challenges is how we take this knowledge and find connecting points into policy, into decision-making within government and corporations, and even into decision-making by individuals.” This had been achieved through partnerships with government and industry during the COVID pandemic.

These connecting points have been frayed regarding Brexit, in relation to Horizon Europe and along with the Brexit rule book as the Northern Ireland deal breaks down.

Toope described still “robust” relationships between universities and laboratories in the UK and Europe post-Brexit. “I know there is a strong impetus to maintain contacts and the collaborations that have been so productive, not just for us but for the world.

“But at the governmental level, I think science and technology are simply being ignored, in light of other political problems, most notably the Northern Ireland Protocol. That has clearly made it hard to reach any agreement on UK association with Horizon Europe, and we are not hearing positive signals on that.”

He continued: “We are now hearing from the UK government that they will back-stop the ERC grants, but they will transfer them to the rules of UK Research and Innovation. That is positive for the grantees: there is no suffering involved, except they can’t move the grant.

“But that pinch point is now here, and there is a lot of worry. Colleagues who have these grants, or who have deep relationships with research groups in Europe, are worried that they will get frozen out over time, or that the money won’t be deployable in flexible ways, and there will be an attrition of those relationships.

“And that happened with Switzerland, when it was outside the Framework Programme, so people are wise to be worried.”

Toope said it had been helpful during Brexit to be able to share with fellow rectors and vice-chancellors in LERU “the concerns, worries and ambiguities of the whole situation. I always felt a good deal of support from my continental counterparts”.

“Right now, continuing to show that the UK higher education system wants to be globally connected and not insular is very important, and LERU continues to play a role in that,” he said.

UK grants under threat

In a LERU interview published on 17 May, European Research Council (ERC) President Professor Maria Leptin spoke among other things about an ERC letter to Horizon grant winners in the UK, which suggested they might need to move country and sparked some controversy.

The letter had unfortunately been misunderstood, she said. “We all know that ERC grants cannot be paid out to host institutions based in non-EU countries that are not associated with Horizon Europe, such as the UK.

“If, by some miracle, UK association occurs, this problem will go away. If not, successful ERC grant applicants in the UK will discover in September or October that they cannot take up their grants,” Leptin said.

“They are entitled to transfer elsewhere, but if they leave it too late, they could lose the money. If they decide to stay in the UK, we have to find someone from the reserve list to receive the grant, and if that doesn’t happen in time, the money is also gone.

“What the letter said, admittedly in rather legal language, was: those of you who want the funding, let us know in time; and those of you who don’t, also let us know in time, so that your colleagues elsewhere can have the funding.”

Leptin encouraged British vice-chancellors to talk to her. “We should engage, and do as much as we can for each other.”