‘Association to Horizon Europe must be the priority’: British Academy chief executive reflects on the latest Science and Technology Committee meeting on R&D policy
by Hetan Shah
17 Oct 2022
Last Wednesday I joined Professor Sarah Main, Executive Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), and Vivienne Stern MBE, Chief Executive of Universities UK, to discuss research & development (R&D) policy at the latest Science and Technology Select Committee meeting. The session came right before the new Science Minister Nusrat Ghani’s first committee appearance and was extremely insightful – not least, I hope, for the new Minister.
At the fore of attendees’ minds was of course the Horizon Europe negotiations and the potential alternative arrangements that the government may pursue if association to Horizon is not possible. We are now at a crucial moment regarding Horizon association and the ongoing uncertainty has been compounded by a summer without a Science Minister in post. Currently negotiations are at a deadlock, most likely due to a stand-off over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Greg Clark MP, the recently re-elected Committee chair, pressed our panel to provide some guidance on the complicated question of how much time the government should allow before diverting efforts to delivering alternatives. Is the current hope for association merely a ‘romantic distraction’? Our response was unequivocal: association must be the priority and we are not yet at a stage where it would be appropriate to give up hope. I indicated that the humanities and social sciences had done particularly well from Horizon funding, but that it is not just about that. The possibilities for international partnership, the quality of the peer review and the prestige and kitemarking of the schemes are all very important. I argued that during this period of uncertainty, it is important to start transitional measures which will give funding to the research community now through, for example, uplifting existing schemes, and that this can be decoupled from enacting long-term alternatives.
Carol Monaghan MP asked about any glaring omissions in Plan B preparations as things stand. Vivienne Stern argued that a long-term commitment to third country participation in any alternative arrangement is essential. In my view, the talent pillar of the current plan is well developed. However, like Vivienne, I am less confident in the arrangements concerning international collaboration. My worry is that the current arrangements rely too heavily on Whitehall-led bilateral agreements instead of the tried-and-tested researcher-led bottom-up partnerships. Sarah Main, in turn, expressed the sector’s fears that the current plan is but a shadow of what is required to replace an expansive programme such as Horizon.
To round off, we were asked for our messages to the new Science Minister, Nusrat Ghani. Sarah Main made a vital point: we are at a rare moment of cross-party consensus on the centrality of R&D investment to driving growth and the key to achieving this is coordinated and concerted delivery. Vivienne echoed this, emphasising that investment in UK science and research is an investment in future prosperity. Meanwhile, I noted the need to consider the breadth of the UK’s research sector – incorporating the insights of the SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) disciplines alongside STEM. I also took the opportunity to highlight the Academy’s Researchers-at-Risk programme and our desire to expand and firm up the programme for the future to make the UK a beacon for supporting researchers around the world who may be at risk.