Horizon Europe: ‘Plan B’

Northern Ireland is at risk of being excluded from the world’s largest international research programme as a result of the UK Government’s unilateral action to alter the Protocol.

The UK Government’s domestic legislative efforts to unilaterally remove parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which the EU has warned could endanger the wider trade deal, also means that the UK’s initial plans to be an associate member of the over €95 billion Horizon Europe programme has yet to be secured.

Horizon Europe is a seven-year programme, with funding available over the seven years from 2021-2027. It is the successor programme of Horizon 2020, which saw researchers and businesses in Northern Ireland draw down almost €100 million for the local economy.

Almost 300 participants in Northern Ireland were successful in drawing funds from Horizon 2020, with an estimated €323,469 available for each successful application, however, despite an even greater tranche of funding being made available under the new Horizon Europe programme, concerns are growing that UK participants, including those in Northern Ireland, could be locked out of accessing funding.

Participation in the programme is not limited to EU member states, a point of critical importance for those researchers and scientists collaborating internationally, but all previous non-member states to associate with the programme have all had a wider trade deal with the bloc.

The European Commission has published all work programmes for Horizon Europe and a new incorporation of research and innovation “missions” are designed to increase the effectiveness of funding by pursuing clearly defined targets in the areas of: adaptation to climate change including societal transformation; cancer research; climate-neutral and smart cities; healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters; and soil health and food.

The UK Government states that it still intends to associate with the programme, as agreed as part of the 2020 Brexit agreement, and encourages potential beneficiaries to “bid for funding opportunities on the same terms as EU-based applicants”, even though the association has not been formalised.

“Only 17 of the 125 eligible proposals submitted by Horizon Europe by Northern Ireland researchers have been considered successful to date.”

However, despite consistent reassurances, association with the programme may be in jeopardy which highlighted in November 2021 when the UK’s then-Science, Research and Innovation Minister George Freeman MP announced a ‘plan B’ “safety net for Horizon Europe applicants” stating that successful applicants for Horizon Europe grant awards will be guaranteed funding regardless of the outcome of the UK’s efforts to associate to Horizon Europe.

Only 17 of the 125 eligible proposals submitted by Horizon Europe by Northern Ireland researchers have been considered successful to date.

Although initially guaranteeing funding for the first wave of eligible and successful applicants to Horizon Europe who have been unable to sign grant agreements, it is understood that the UK Government is prepared to redistribute funding earmarked to buy in to Horizon Europe to UK government R&D programmes.

In July 2022, the UK Government set out a new package of transitional measures which it says will “ensure the stability and continuity of funding for researchers and businesses”, and will come into force if the UK is not able to associate to Horizon Europe.

Criticism levelled at this approach is that financial backing alone will not cover the collaborative opportunities offered through Horizon Europe which have been so successful to date.

Writing in the Financial Times science commentator Anjana Ahuja said: “Losing connections forged over four decades to the world’s leading collaborative research programme through poor statecraft is worse than bad. It makes a mockery of the Government’s self-proclaimed ambition to turn the UK into a global science superpower.”

It is understood that over 100 successful applicants from the UK have not been able to secure final sign off for funding, with some choosing to move their work to a European institution to do so.

What the proposed distribution of R&D funding by the UK Government will mean for Northern Ireland’s scientists and researchers is unclear, however, in a separate audit of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the body responsible for delivering the initial cover for the first wave of funding, it was found that the UK’s largest public funder of research and innovation allocated less than 1 per cent of purse to Northern Ireland in 2020/21. Overall, Northern Ireland received £48 million out of around £5.3 billion spent by UKRI’s research councils and Innovate UK in 2020/21.

The Department for the Economy says: “Despite the UK not yet having formally associated to the programme, Northern Ireland researchers and businesses have been able to apply to Horizon Europe calls since the start of the programme. The latest available figures show that Northern Ireland researchers across academia, the private and public sectors have submitted 125 eligible proposals to Horizon Europe. Seventeen of those proposals have been considered successful with associated funding of €6.17 million.

“Northern Ireland Government officials continue to engage with UK Government officials to stay abreast of UK-EU engagement and contribute to the development of UK transition and alternative plans if required, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s unique position is considered and that any alternatives best meet the needs of Northern Ireland.”

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