As hopes fade, UK unveils alternative to Horizon Europe

Hopes of saving the United Kingdom’s full participation in the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme are fading fast, with the European Commission launching four new infringement procedures against the United Kingdom for not complying with significant parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement covering the Northern Ireland Protocol.

With patience running out on both sides, the UK government published details of its ‘Plan B’ alternative to Horizon Europe on 20 July 2022, despite maintaining that it does not want to leave the European Union’s flagship Horizon, Copernicus, Euratom Research and Training and Fusion for Energy programmes.

The European Commission is holding firm to linking full association to Horizon with the UK’s full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) negotiated between the UK government and the EU, including the protocol to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and protection of the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and “the integrity of the EU’s Single Market”.

And, far from softening its position, the European Commission has just announced four new infringement procedures against the UK for not complying with significant parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol in addition to the infringement procedures launched on 15 June 2022.

Scientists plead for change of heart

Despite the deadlock, the Russell Group of 24 research-intensive UK universities has made a last-ditch plea to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, for a change of heart.

In a letter, Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said the commission’s decision not to confirm the UK’s full association to Horizon Europe until the discussions around the Northern Ireland Protocol have been resolved is a ‘mistake’.

“Scientists cannot control the outcome of debates over the protocol. Yet science and the solutions it can provide to challenges like net zero and public health will be the ones that suffer,” he wrote.

Bradshaw told Von der Leyen that, without the UK’s association to the European ‘excellent science’ schemes, the programme will become less competitive, with knock-on impacts for the excellence and prestige of EU grants.

“Association is, therefore, too important to be used as part of a negotiation and the current impasse shows this is having no leverage over the Northern Ireland protocol.

“Of course, there are serious political issues at play that must be resolved in a mutually beneficial way; however, you have the ability to ensure negotiations continue to take place while the UK participates in Horizon Europe,” wrote Bradshaw.

His letter was sent on 19 July and comes as the UK government sets out its plans for a Plan B alternative to Horizon Europe, which it will implement if British membership to the programme cannot be agreed on.

Bradshaw said: “The (UK) Government has made clear that full association remains its top priority. However, the publication of these plans means walking away from Horizon has become a step closer, and the time left to resolve this is growing short.”

Plan B details

Details of the government’s Plan B were released on 20 July 2022 in a policy paper, titled Supporting UK R&D and collaborative research beyond European programmes.

This began with a foreword from Kwasi Kwarteng, the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, which stated: “The UK government has always been clear that our departure from the European Union (EU) does not mean leaving the flagship Horizon, Copernicus, Euratom Research & Training and Fusion for Energy programmes.

“The UK has always been a major financial and intellectual contributor to these programmes and seeks to continue that partnership.

“Unfortunately, the EU has still not formalised our association to these programmes as agreed under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), linking them to resolution of wider political discussions.”

‘Intolerable uncertainty’

Kwarteng said he was concerned that the continued delays were “causing intolerable uncertainty for our research and business community” and claimed “the UK is more committed than ever to strong research collaboration with our European partners”.

He accepted that association to Horizon “continues to look unlikely while the EU links it to wider political issues” and said that was why the UK is developing a long-term alternative “which will seek to draw on the best features of Horizon and add some improvements which researchers and businesses have told us would be hugely welcome”.

Should the UK not be able to associate to Horizon Europe, the immediate focus must be on “transitional measures to protect and stabilise the sector”.

While the UK wishes to associate with all four EU programmes, Kwarteng said ongoing delays meant the government needed to make “the most of the UK’s science and innovation strengths” and prepare for an alternative future.

“In developing these programmes, we will need the support of the whole UK R&D community. This is a vital moment for UK research in which I and the government are determined we will strengthen, deepen, and widen our commitment to international research,” said Kwarteng.

The executive summary to the Plan B policy paper said the UK and EU “agreed the terms for the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe, Copernicus, Euratom Research & Training and Fusion for Energy under the TCA in December 2020 in order to provide a platform through which UK and European scientists and innovators can tackle significant and shared challenges in society”.

It expressed disappointment “that the EU has linked association with wider issues and, 18 months later, still has not finalised the UK’s association. This has left UK and European researchers and businesses in limbo”.

It went on to say the government has supported UK researchers and innovators by launching the Horizon Europe guarantee in November 2021 “to ensure that eligible UK applicants who have been successfully evaluated by the European Commission (EC) have access to funding regardless of whether the UK associates to Horizon Europe, if the EC final grant signature date is on or before 31 December 2022”.

An ‘ambitious alternative’

If the EU does not formalise the UK’s association soon, the UK will put in place “an ambitious alternative, including a suite of transitional measures”, funded from the budget set aside for UK association to the European programmes.

“These long-term programmes would focus on building on UK strengths and making the UK a destination of choice, investing in talent, research, innovation, infrastructure and international collaboration,” the executive summary stated.

Talking to ScienceBusiness, Ben Johnson, executive head of strategic research and innovation development at the University of Strathclyde, and a former adviser to several UK science ministers, said: “The de facto situation is that we are not associating to Horizon and we are already feeling the effects,” adding the UK government’s alternative document “offers clear measures to protect and stabilise the system for the next few years”.

Researchers point out the most significant pledge is the promise to fund all UK participants in Horizon Europe consortia where grant agreements are signed before 31 March 2025.

So, even if the UK isn’t associated to the EU programme as a full participant, UK researchers can still respond to Horizon Europe calls as ‘third country applicants’ and join consortia with at least three other applicants from EU member states or associated countries, “provided they bring their own funding”, the UK’s Plan B document points out.

“As this is a priority for businesses and researchers, the government will fund all eligible UK entities participating in any such consortia signing grant agreements before 31 March 2025.

“The government will consider our approach to funding for Third Country Participation beyond this date and make an announcement by October 2024,” according to the Supporting UK R&D and collaborative research beyond European programmes policy paper.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_comms on twitter. Nic also blogs at