UK sets up £6bn Plan B science fund if EU blocks association with Horizon

The UK plans to spend £6billion over three years on a new global science fund, if the EU refuses to let the country participate in its Horizon Europe research programme, the government’s preferred option.

Science minister George Freeman told the FT he was working on the new international fund, known in science policy circles as Plan B, while still hoping Brussels would grant Britain membership associated with Horizon Europe – the main EU funding program for research and innovation with a budget of €95 billion over seven years.

Britain’s association with Horizon Europe was foreseen in the 2020 Brexit deal, but has yet to happen, due to continuing disagreements between the EU and UK over Northern Ireland and ‘other questions. Switzerland also remains excluded for similar political reasons.

“Our position remains that we want to partner. Hopefully after the French elections and various issues still under discussion around Brexit are resolved, association will be possible,” said Freeman, who campaigned to remain in the 2016 referendum.

He declined to say how long the UK would wait before abandoning Horizon, but said the government was actively developing a “coherent and ambitious alternative plan for international science”. . . based on the elements of Horizon that researchers find most valuable: global scholarships, strong funding for the industrial challenge, innovation missions around the technologies of tomorrow. Outside of Horizon, we have the freedom to be more global,” he said.

Freeman said he was “reaching out to scientific allies” outside the EU, including Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Switzerland also feeling “very frustrated” by its exclusion so far from Horizon Europe, he will meet the Swiss Minister of Science on Monday.

“One problem with Plan B is that we don’t yet really know what it would entail,” said Daniel Rathbone, policy officer at the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a grassroots lobby group. “With Horizon Europe, we know what we are getting and the deal is ready to go if politics allows.”

The pressure on Brussels to admit the UK comes not just from British scientists but also from their continental counterparts who argue that no deal would harm European science as a whole.

“With the first Horizon Europe grant agreements approaching and new calls soon to be launched, the UK association must be finalized without further delay,” hundreds of EU science and research bodies told Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, in a joint letter. at the end of last year.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said: “Uncertainty is already leading to a downward spiral in collaborative activities between scientists across the UK and the Continent.”

He agreed the government needed to prepare a plan B but should be more open with UK researchers about what it could and could not achieve. “We may be able to create a global grant-making program, but it will be extremely difficult to replicate the whole collaborative structure of Horizon Europe,” said Wilsdon.

Freeman’s appointment as science minister last September was warmly welcomed by most British scientists, who valued his knowledge of the sector from a pre-parliamentary career building high-tech companies and then a stint as life sciences minister in David Cameron’s coalition government.

Rathbone said Freeman still has support from the research community. “He hit the ground running,” he said. “He has a lot of ideas and enthusiasm for the sector and engages with scientists.”

Although the Autumn Spending Review reduced the increase in public R&D funding to £20bn in 2024-25 from the £22bn pledged in 2020, researchers are still looking forward an increase in real terms from the £14.9bn allocated this year.

Besides Horizon Europe, another issue on Freeman’s ministerial plaque is the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) which the government is setting up with an £800million budget to conduct high-risk, high-reward research , based on the US Defense Advanced Research model. Projects Agency (Darpa).

Aria was a personal enthusiam of former special adviser to the Prime Minister Dominic Cummings, who left 10 Downing Street in November 2020, and some feared the project was losing momentum. But he got a boost last week when Peter Highnam, a highly regarded computer scientist who is currently deputy director of Darpa, agreed to become Aria’s first chief executive for a five-year term beginning in May.

“When Peter Highnam, who to those who don’t know him is to science what Alex Ferguson is to football management, wants to become CEO of this exciting new agency, it’s a huge validation of our plans and our science,” says Freeman. “We are now in the process of appointing a chair to complement Peter.”

“We created Aria in a way free from Whitehall interference and management,” Freeman added. “It’s the ultimate lab to attract the world’s best scientists to come and use our research infrastructure to answer the big questions facing the world in the 21st century.”

Aria’s chairman and chief executive, along with a small group of program managers, will have the flexibility and power to select and pursue projects without interference, compared to their counterparts at UK Research and Innovation, the country’s traditional science funding agency.

Although ministers have been criticized for exempting Aria from freedom of information requirements to which other public bodies are subject, Freeman insisted: “It is public money and Aria will be accountable to Parliament. . . But we want to be able to say to Peter Highnam, “You have the freedom to create a living laboratory of exciting discovery science here without the all-too-common short-term funding constraints and bureaucracy that dominate so much of the global research”.

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