UK presents ‘Plan B’ research funding to circumvent EU deadlock | Science
The UK government has explained how it will replace the European Union’s flagship research funding scheme with a national one if ongoing Brexit wrangling prevents the country from taking part in the EU scheme. The outline, published on Wednesday, outlines how the government’s ‘Plan B’ would give UK-based researchers the funding they would have accessed under the 7-year, €95 billion Horizon Europe programme.
The 2020 Brexit Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the European Union was supposed to enable UK participation in the Horizon programme. But the European Union has avoided finalizing the Horizon deal due to ongoing trade disputes in Northern Ireland. The UK government still hopes to participate, but “the continued delays are causing intolerable uncertainty for our research and business community,” Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state in the government department that oversees science funding, wrote in a document. describing the alternative financing system. Although the government had already started to replace Horizon funds lost due to the continued uncertainty, more details on its longer-term plan to replace the program had been slow to materialize.
The ‘plan B’ mechanisms would include replacements for Horizon grants to individual researchers, as well as ways to help UK researchers take part in international collaborations. The policy also encourages UK researchers to continue to apply for Horizon funding, despite the stalemate, guaranteeing replacement funds if a Horizon ‘partnership’ agreement has still not been finalized by the time the grant starts. “In-progress” grant applications – submitted to the European Commission, but not yet assessed – would be handled by national grant review programs.
“Of course everyone’s preference is still the association,” says Martin Smith, policy officer at the Wellcome Trust, a UK charity that supports research. “What is described here is probably the best you can do under the circumstances.” The UK had set aside £15 billion to be paid to Horizon over the next decade, hoping its researchers would earn around that amount in Horizon grants. Replacing Horizon funding is more than just reallocating money to the country, Smith points out: It will be more difficult to replace the effortless international collaboration enabled by Horizon funding.
The announcement helps ease fears that UK money earmarked for Horizon could be diverted from science if a final deal is not reached, says James Wilsdon, science policy researcher at the University of Sheffield. While the plan does not specify the amount of funding that will be allocated to each of the Plan B mechanisms, it does indicate that the government is standing by its commitment to use Horizon funding for national research funding, he said.
Plan B would fit within Horizon Europe’s existing policies on team research grants. UK researchers could still participate in some of its funding schemes, as ‘third country participants’ – as long as the projects include at least three collaborators in EU Member States or other countries associated with Horizon and bring their own funding to the table. The plan suggests the UK will impose no limit on the number of such projects the country will help fund, pending another review in October 2024. This is good news, Smith says, because any internal restrictions on such projects could make EU researchers think twice about bringing British collaborators on board. But UK researchers would not be able to play a leading role in Horizon-funded research consortia, an EU restriction that is already causing complications for existing collaborations.
More details on how the programs will be funded and by how much are expected later this year, if the government decides to forgo a Horizon deal, Wilsdon said. Details on national replacements for Copernicus – the EU’s Earth observation program – and the European Atomic Energy Community are still being worked out.
The proposed replacement for lost EU funding programs does not address the wider issues facing UK science due to Brexit, Smith said. Prohibitive visa costs – which can cost up to £15,000 for an overseas researcher moving to the UK with a family – are also hurting the UK’s ability to attract international talent.
Political headwinds complicate the immediate future of Plan B. The plan comes just before the summer parliamentary recess, shortly after the resignation of Science Minister George Freeman, and amid political turmoil as the Conservative Party prepares to choose its next leader. It is not yet clear whether the leaders of the leadership race will match incumbent leader Boris Johnson’s pledges to fund science, Smith said.
The leadership transition offers a glimmer of hope for a final deal with Horizon, says Daniel Rathbone, deputy director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, as it opens the door to a reset in EU-UK relations. “It offers a chance to refresh a bit and rethink,” he says. “And Horizon Europe, being such an obvious win-win for both parties, would be a good way to do that.”