The UK’s proposed alternative to the EU’s Horizon research program has failed to sway support for the bloc financing to plan.
The program, dubbed Pioneer, offers a back-up plan in case the UK doesn’t rejoin Horizon. A recent trade deal for Northern Ireland had opened the door for re-entry into the EU system, but negotiations on Horizon’s terms have stalled. Pioneer will be activated if no deal is struck.
“We hope our negotiations will be successful and that is our preference, but the right conditions must apply,” said Michelle Donelan, the UK’s science and technology secretary. “We need to make sure we have an ambitious alternative, ready to go if we need it, and that our companies and researchers are feeding into it.”
The UK government has pledged £14.6bn (€16.6bn) to Pioneer – the same amount it would have paid to work with Horizon from 2021 to 2027. However, critics warn that financial parity does not equate to equal benefits.
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“Government also needs to remember that there is more at stake here than just money,” said Tony McBride, director of policy and public affairs at the Physics Department. “Should the need arise, any alternative to Horizon must also make up for the loss of the well-established networks, partnerships and infrastructure that the UK has benefited from for many, many years, and the disruption and uncertainty of delay caused by those years.”
Horizon not only provides a large pool of funding, but also encourages collaboration. The €95.5 billion program invests in projects involving different institutions in several countries. It also offers common rules and funding cycles that encourage international partnerships. Any domestic program would struggle to keep up with the impact of the pan-European ecosystem.
Cancer research, for example has benefited from the networks and frameworks of the program as well as from its grants.
“No one can beat cancer alone, and Horizon Europe offers scientists a ready-made structure to apply for funding to tackle global problems,” said Dr. Owen Jackson, Director of Policy at Cancer Research UK. “Cancer scientists based in the UK are in a strong position to receive funding from Horizon Europe and the EU Cancer Mission. But they will be on the fringes rather than the center of these important opportunities if we don’t get an association across the line.”
“Many elements of Pioneer would be valuable additions.
In a 50-page prospectus for Pioneer, the UK government highlighted the potential benefits of its “Plan B”. In particular, the proposals promise to build on the UK’s strengths and develop new capabilities, while allocating resources and support across the country.
Despite their support for Horizon, many UK-based researchers have welcomed aspects of Pioneer. Nevertheless, they emphasize that some proposals could be used alongside the EU program.
“Many elements of Pioneer would also be valuable additions to the opportunities offered by Horizon and current UK programmes,” said Dr. Andrew Clark, Executive Director of Programs at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “We hope that once the connection with Horizon has been confirmed, the government will seriously consider investing in these aspects of Pioneer.”
Clark’s opinion was shared by Professor Paul Boyle, Chair of the Universities UK Research and Innovation Policy Network.
“This should not be viewed as an either/or scenario,” he said. “Strengthening our links with Europe and beyond through Horizon can coincide with the introduction of elements of the government’s alternative plans and give the UK the best opportunity to cement our status as a science superpower.”
Clark’s hopes are not lost. The agreement on Northern Ireland and the conciliatory gestures in the Horizon talks have reignited optimism that a deal will be reached. Finally, both sides agree on the most important concept: the UK’s association with Horizon can be mutually beneficial.