Position Paper: Transition arrangements for Horizon Europe

On 20 July, the UK Government published its Horizon Europe contingency plans “Supporting UK R&D and collaborative research beyond European programmes”. 

In response to a survey from UUKi, Eastern Arc made clear it’s position on Horizon Europe, reiterating its view that assocation is the preferable way forward for the UK research base. Whilst welcoming the Government’s contingency planning, EARC had significant concerns about some of the proposals.

Further detail on each of the areas that UUKi raised is given below.

1.Guarantee extension

The Eastern Arc universities welcome this guarantee and the Government’s explicit statement that its ‘preference remains for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe.’

They note in particular the breadth and length of the Government’s guarantee: having no restriction on discipline and lasting until 2025 should reassure both applicants and partners in applying for EU funding.

However, there is a recognition that the damage has already been done to the UK’s research profile internationally and, anecdotally, existing and potential European partners are at best wary about inviting UK colleagues to be part of consortia, and in some cases this has led to a blanket refusal to engage.

There are examples of UK institutions having to hand over the leadership of research consortia to other members. This blow to the UK’s research leadership is one that cannot easily be undone.

The impact on the UK’s profile and collaborative prospects is due, in large part, to the long period of uncertainty around post-Brexit arrangements, and a lack of awareness amongst some potential partners of the UK Government’s guarantee. Not all of this is the fault of the Government per se, but demonstrates the need for clarity, certainty and communication.

An additional suggestion from one of the EARC partners is for a ‘UKRI certificate of eligibility’ to reassure European coordinators that the UK funding can be relied on. We believe this would be an important and valuable initiative.

2.In-flight applications

Eastern Arc has three key concerns in this area.

The first is that support for so-called ‘in-flight’ applications is primarily for ‘eligibile mono-beneficiary…calls’, such as those offered by the European Research Council (ERC) and the Marie Skłodowska–Curie Actions.

Although the support is welcome, it should be recognised that an alternative UK-based fellowship – which is what this proposal will result in – will not have the same international profile as one offered by the ERC and MSCA. The ERC has become the ‘gold standard’ for research within Europe; a UK-based scheme cannot have the same esteem, and fellowships funded by it will be in danger of seeming second-best.

Secondly, and more operationally, we are concerned about how the UK-based assessment will be undertaken. Any research funding application is responding to the specific parameters of a call, and will have been drafted to address the individual aims and objectives of it. Any assessment therefore needs to take this into account, and not judge an application on criteria that are in any way different from those originally given.

This is a particular concern as, in the Government’s proposal, it is suggested that applicants will need to provide ‘some additional details’. This suggests that there will be additional assessment criteria used.

In addition, we would want reassurance as to how assessors would be selected. ERC bids are judged by an international and representative panel; would UKRI be able to choose a similarly diverse panel of assessors without creating a heavier and less sustainable workload on a small number of senior academics?

Finally, we have some concern of the danger of politics impinging on the scheme. The recently published UKRI Strategy was tied closely to many of the Government’s key priorities (such as levelling up), and we would not wish such priorities to in any way impact on the assessment of in-flight applications. As with the ERC, the primary criterion should be the excellence of the research.

3.Talent and Research Stabilisation Fund

Eastern Arc is supportive of the Government’s proposal to provide funding for  ‘institutions most affected by the loss of Horizon Europe’s talent funding.’ However, we are concerned about the algorithm that will be used to identify such institutions. Will it focus on the overall funding figure, or by FTE? Will there be a regional element? What period of funding will be used to benchmark an institution’s grant capture?

In addition, we fully endorse a point made by one EARC institution: ‘the loss to UK universities from non-association to Horizon Europe would not be purely financial.  Ease of networking and engagement with institutions across the EU and beyond is vital for top researchers.  EU research framework programmes enable simpler interaction and collaboration under a shared regulatory structure that applies to everyone.’

4.Further thoughts

Eastern Arc has three further concerns in relation to the proposals.

Firstly, with a change of Prime Minister, will there continue to be a commitment to either association or to the suggested transition arrangements or alternative funding structures? With an increasing pressure on the Treasury in relation to the cost of living crisis – and an expectation from Conservative party members (i.e. the leadership electorate) that taxes will be cut – there is a very real danger that promises made by the previous administration may be reneged upon.

Secondly, replication of the administrative processes necessary to assess and manage alternatives to Horizon Europe funding will be a significant undertaking. Will the Government commit to providing the resources for UKRI to put in place such measures, as well as providing a level of additional support and training for institutions? In addition, will there be consideration of simplifying the wider framework of support, such as the simplification of visa restrictions?

Third, and related to the development of the formula for the Stabilisation Fund, has any thought been given as to how universities of different scales and engagement with Europe are consulted and included in discussions about alternative arrangements?

There is a danger that the largest beneficiaries of EU funding in the past will have an undue effect on the proposals going forward, helping to replicate previous ways of working and embedded biases.

The new funding, if necessary, should be seen as an opportunity to open up international funding to a wider and more diverse range of institutions, including both large and small universities, institutions and research centres.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska