The UK’s proposed alternative to the EU’s Horizon research program has failed to affect support for the blockades financing regulation.
The programme, called Pioneer, provides a backup plan in case the UK does not rejoin Horizon. A recent trade deal for Northern Ireland had opened the door for re-entry into the EU scheme, but negotiations on Horizon’s terms have stalled. Pioneer is activated if no agreement is reached.
“We hope that our negotiations will be successful, which is our preference, but on the right terms,” said Michelle Donelan, UK Secretary of State for Science and Technology. “We need to make sure we have an ambitious alternative ready when we need it and that our companies and researchers have contributed to it.”
The UK government has pledged to provide £14.6bn (€16.6bn) to Pioneer – the same amount it would have paid to associate with Horizon from 2021 to 2027. But critics warn that financial parity will not equate to equal benefits.
“The government also needs to remember that there is more at stake than money,” said Tony McBride, director of policy and public affairs at the Institute of Physics. “Should the need arise, any alternative to Horizon should also compensate for the loss of the established networks, partnerships and infrastructure that the UK has benefited from over many, many years, as well as the disruption and uncertainty caused by these years of delay.”
Horizon not only provides a large money pot, but also stimulates cooperation. The €95.5 billion scheme invests in projects of various institutions in multiple countries. It also offers common rules and funding cycles that promote international partnerships. Any domestic program would struggle to match the impact of the pan-European ecosystem.
Cancer research eg. has benefited from the networks and frameworks of the program, as well as the grants.
“No one can beat cancer alone, and Horizon Europe provides scientists with a ready-made structure to bid for funding to tackle global problems,” said Dr Owen Jackson, Policy Director at Cancer Research UK. “Cancer scientists in the UK are in a strong position to secure funding from Horizon Europe and the EU’s cancer mission. But they will be on the periphery, rather than in 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 British government emphasized the potential benefits of its “Plan B”. In particular, the proposals promise to build on the UK’s strengths and develop new capabilities, while distributing resources and support across the country.
Despite their support for Horizon, many UK-based researchers have welcomed aspects of Pioneer. Still, they emphasize that there are some proposals can be used alongside the EU programme.
“Many elements of Pioneer would also be valuable additions to the capabilities offered by Horizon and current programs in the UK,” said Dr. Andrew Clark, Executive Director of Programs at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “We hope that the government will seriously consider investing in those aspects of Pioneer once the partnership with Horizon is confirmed.”
Clark’s sentiment was echoed 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 ties to Europe and beyond through Horizon may involve rolling out elements of the government’s alternative plans, giving the UK the best chance to cement our status as a scientific powerhouse.”
Clark’s hope is not lost. The Agreement on Northern Ireland and the conciliatory gestures in Horizon conversations have renewed optimism that a deal will be struck. After all, both parties agree on the most important term: associating the UK with Horizon can be mutually beneficial.