Behind the Horizon deal – Researchers and policy experts

It is great news for science, and ultimately for the British public, that the United Kingdom and the European Union have got the Horizon deal done, along with that for Copernicus, the EU’s earth observation programme.

With the issue now resolved of what the UK should pay as a non-EU member, UK-based scientists will have access to the Horizon programme on terms which maintain the privileges they enjoyed in the days of EU membership.

The enthusiastic European reaction to the accord puts to rest some British questions. Hard luck stories have abounded of researchers given Horizon grants in 2021 and forced to make existential choices.

Should they, could they, move to an EU member state to keep their funding or resign themselves to narrower British options? A wider worry was whether continental scientists would grab the opportunities that opened up with the UK dropping out of the race.

But a generous ‘welcome back’ tone was set by Maria Leptin, president of the European Research Council, which funds frontier research, and where in the past UK scientists have played an influential role: “At the ERC, we look forward to welcoming back researchers based in the UK, after the trying last few years. They have been sorely missed.”

The League of European Research Universities and the European Alliance for Social Sciences and Humanities were among those applauding in similar terms.

Under the radar 1

Underneath the media radar, the Horizon programme provides a more fundamental explanation as to why there is a shared ambition to keep the European research sector strong. Just as successful research is seldom the work of a single scientist, so major political decisions are not simply the work of the headline figures.

Behind the deal agreed by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen deal there has been a lot of pressure bubbling away from those committed to advancing Europe’s research capacity: a telling combination of researchers’ networks where trust is strong, institutions supple enough to play diverse roles and entrepreneurial actors working to the same end.

Recent LSE research by Linda Hantrais and Grace McConnell tells one version of this story.

They chart Horizon’s ERC awards to the UK in all disciplines from 2016 to 2020, and in parallel LSE sources of EU social sciences research funds from 2015 to 2021. This included the period when the EU stalled Horizon negotiations in retaliation for Boris Johnson breaking the Withdrawal Treaty over Northern Ireland.

Many UK-based scientists feared that colleagues on the continent in Horizon were deserting them. They were right. Awards to British-based scientists fell dramatically across the board: physical sciences and engineering, social sciences and humanities, and life sciences.

But in a parallel move from 2021, there were concerted efforts made by the UK’s umbrella research organisation, UKRI – UK Research and Innovation. Guaranteeing funding for grant winners, it consistently encouraged UK scientists to go on applying to Horizon.

Like other institutions, LSE also did its bit. It made special efforts to recruit and retain EU staff, contributing to visas and their settlement costs. It also funded efforts to revive pre-existing research collaborations.

And the result of these combined efforts? LSE’s ERC awards rose from an all-time low in 2020 to back above pre-referendum levels.

Under the radar 2

A second version of what was going on below the surface is the time-honoured story of the policy go-betweens who act as bridges between institutions and oil the wheels across different policy platforms.

The links between Universities UK, the European University Association – representing 48 university presidents’ associations and more than 800 universities – and the policy specialists in the directorates of the European Commission, have been key to keeping the UK case on the agenda.

The go-betweens are people who have known each other over the years and are well known to the wider policy community. They have rich and overlapping networks which cross the national, European and international scene. And, a key factor, they are energetic, experts at spotting an opportunity to advance an issue.

Vivienne Stern, the new chief executive of UUK, has publicly praised the work of one such entrepreneurial figure, UUK’s Peter Mason, head of global research and innovation policy. His career has included a spell in Brussels as well as a long stint in UUK’s international arm.

The European University Association’s director for policy coordination and foresight, Thomas Ekman Jørgensen, prominent on the European higher education and research scene, is another who can be publicly named.

At the same time, they are beneficiaries of the fact that the EU offers many opportunities, with its multiple platforms and multiple actors, for coordinating action.

What next?

Now that these efforts have had their successful culmination in the Horizon deal, it must be time to move on. Informal discussions are already happening on the next tranche of the Horizon programme which will start in 2028.

Four questions are already on the table.

How can Switzerland, the other exiled research power, be brought back in?

How can the EU build constructively on the tensions between fostering excellence research – in which the UK, Germany and the Netherlands have strong roles – and the ‘widening’ policy to strengthen the research capacity of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which lose many of their research starts to the bright lights of Oxford, Cambridge and leading German universities?

How far should the programme tip towards innovation and commercial exploitation, as politicians want, without damaging the EU’s capacity to support frontier research?

And can European Research Area policy both strengthen the EU itself as a research region, as against doing more to provide a global model?

It is a chance for the UK to reciprocate some of the generosity of its European partners in getting British-based researchers back in the programme so they can contribute to European as opposed to national policy.

Anne Corbett is a senior associate at LSE Consultancy. She and Linda Hantrais have recently co-authored “Higher education and research in the Brexit policy process”, in the Journal of European Public Policy.