Horizon countdown darkens outlook for UK science

The days now look numbered for continued British participation in Horizon, the European Union’s flagship programme for science and innovation.

The potential countdown to the UK being shut out of Horizon started to unroll on 13 June when the UK government published draft legislation concerning trade with Northern Ireland. That is a step which breaches the treaty that Britain and the EU negotiated in 2019, commonly known as the ‘Brexit withdrawal agreement’.

It is also a moment of truth for Boris Johnson’s much-repeated claim to make Britain a science superpower. The EU will retaliate if, and when, the new bill becomes law.

That will put a stop to the government’s other mantra that it would want to keep Britain as a (paying) associate of the programme since, post exit, it can no longer retain its status as one of the programme’s major grant holders. The European commissioner for research and education made clear the linkage with the Northern Ireland issue last October.

More than self-interest

The implications go well beyond the claim of anti-Europeans that British researchers’ support for Horizon is mere self-interest. The Horizon programme has a national role as an ecology, underpinning the development of post-doctoral, PhD students and technicians in multi-cultural settings of excellence which filter back into university teaching. It is also of a scale that no national body can replicate.

The programme addresses three strategic questions: technological sovereignty, the expansion of innovation capacity and competitiveness, and a commitment to support a sustainable society.

From a UK scientists’ perspective, Horizon has also proved something of a welcome counterweight to the narrowing of UK policy: it provides significant funding for arts and the social sciences.

Any substitute would need to match the capacity of Horizon’s three key institutions: the European Research Council (ERC) and the European Innovation Council (EIC) which deliver grants based on excellence, plus the Marie Sklodowska-Curie programme.

The ERC targets scientists from promising post-doctoral level to established stars and the EIC is a resource for small- and medium-sized businesses. Meanwhile, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie programme supports networks of young researchers.

Even the science minister in Boris Johnson’s government, being questioned by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology on 2 February, recognised that there was “80, if not 100%” support for Horizon.

A double game

This might look like a case of ‘if you don’t have a problem, don’t fix it’. But it looks as if the current government has been playing a double game all along, just as it did over the Erasmus programme. Telling the EU negotiator Michel Barnier that it wanted to stay in, it was simultaneously developing the slimmed down alternative of the Turing programme which it saw as more aligned with British interests.

Back in 2019, when it looked as if the UK might leave the EU without a trade and cooperation deal, the government of the time prudently asked for a Plan B to save British science.

The report, Changes and Choices, was written by two eminent figures in the university world, Sir Adrian Smith, now head of the Alan Turing Institute and Graeme Reid from University College London. They underlined that any Plan B programme needed to be open to the world, based on international collaboration, with an international organisation to run it and an appropriate immigration policy and that it needed to be backed by funding to create an equivalent to the EU’s ERC.

Smith was quoted at the time as saying that the scheme needed to be “bigger, brighter and pay better than the ERC” with which it would be in competition.

Move forward two years and, last autumn, the minister of science, George Freeman, announced that “exciting plans for a rival funder” were being developed that “may change [the] minds of Horizon”.

On 2 February, being questioned by the Parliamentary Select Committee, he argued the merits of a UK alternative to Horizon: it provided the chance of linking with “better quality” universities in the United States, Australia and Asia. In addition, “we could do global collaboration with the ‘Five Eyes’ [US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand] and allied countries”.

There is a very exciting opportunity to make it a very powerful global UK and international programme that delivers bilateral and multilateral research,” he said.

He has since announced that the programme would have funding of £15 billion (US$18 billion) and not just the £6 billion set aside for the eventual Horizon participation.

Defence and diplomacy links

These choices show that the current government is developing a different cultural model for science funding and development: one that is consistent with the ‘Anglosphere’ (the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) with which it has close links in defence and diplomacy.

The government is also reported to be looking to Israel, Switzerland and Singapore as potential collaborators in their scheme, consistent with the UK joining a Pacific trade bloc, along with the Philippines.

The outlook for the UK’s science community is currently grim. Meanwhile, the science policy experts within the European Commission in the directorate general and around the commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, once such keen supporters, are said by Brussels insiders to be comfortably aligned with the decision of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to link Horizon with the issue of Northern Ireland.

Five years on from Brexit, the EU has an ever-diminishing interest in keeping the UK’s uncertain situation at the top of its agenda.

Dr Anne Corbett is a senior associate of LSE Consulting. She is the author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge: Ideas, institutions and policy entrepreneurship in European Union higher education policy, 1955-2005. Palgrave, 2005.