How to make UK association to Horizon Europe a success

11 Sep 2023

By Professor Simon Goldhill FBA, Foreign Secretary of the British Academy, and Philip Lewis, the British Academy's Head of International

The news that the UK science and research community has long been waiting for has arrived: the European Commission and the UK Government have reached an agreement on association to Horizon Europe. The announcement has rightly been met with a sigh of relief and warm welcome by the sector. But what must the UK now do to make association as impactful as possible? One thing is clear: this will require a sector-wide effort with close collaboration between government, funders, institutions and researchers in the UK and with partners in the EU. The scale of the challenge, as well as the opportunity, should not be underestimated, and we must hit the ground running. There are some key actions which must be taken forwards now.

First, the sector needs clarification and guidance issued on the terms of the agreement to provide to researchers in the UK and the EU. It would be particularly useful to receive a full rundown of the 2023 calls that will continue under transitional arrangements and the 2024 calls for which the UK will be an associated country. Such guidance must be detailed, factual and provided by both the UK and the EU to give the fullest certainty to UK-based researchers and those researchers wishing to collaborate with UK-based partners. The guidance already published by the UK Government and the extension of the current Horizon Europe guarantee to cover everything that is not otherwise covered by association is very welcome.

Second, it is critical that the UK and the EU coordinate their communications about UK association to provide certainty for any researchers wishing to collaborate with the UK. This includes clear communications on their respective websites and the advice they provide to prospective applicants. This could then be supported by a series of events and wider engagements in the UK and the EU to raise awareness and understanding of the association agreement. The sector has a key role to play here to disseminate advice and guidance and to organise its own collaborative activities, including via representative bodies and academies. The UK Research Office (UKRO) in Brussels will continue to be an invaluable resource, as will its partner organisations based here. We would expect UKRO’s role to be reinforced and enhanced, supported by the UK National Contact Points who should be provided with additional funding to undertake targeted brokering activities.

The delay to UK association has had a detrimental impact on UK-based researchers and those in the EU who have looked to collaborate with the UK. As one consequence, the expertise held within UK research institutions in applying for and running EU Framework Programme grants has been affected by the longstanding uncertainty. This will not be straightforward to overcome, though targeted efforts to maximise participation in Horizon Europe should be rolled out as soon as possible. The British Academy has previously run a scheme to support consortia building in Horizon Europe, and we would welcome the opportunity to deliver this scheme again. We have also run a series of webinars to support applications to the European Research Council. Engagement activities like these will be key to driving up UK participation in Horizon Europe. We can and must be on the front foot offering and resourcing opportunities for UK-based researchers and researchers elsewhere to engage with the UK in Horizon Europe.

Finally, our goal should be to ensure that participation in Horizon Europe works so effectively that the transition into Framework Programme 10 – the EU’s next funding programme, scheduled to start in 2028 and run for seven years – is seamless. For that we need to revive or establish structures and networks that provide a number of things. First, communications to researchers and institutions in the UK and the EU; second, coordinating on  delivery of the activities that will drive forward participation and the reconstruction of precarious relationships to maximise collaboration; third, intelligence sharing on the progress that is being made; and finally, influencing the design and development of EU Framework Programmes going forward, including effective feedback loops within the sector from the coalface of applying to the engagement on Programme Committees.

The sector has made a united case to achieve association over many years. We should take pride in this milestone and congratulate those involved in what have no doubt been complex negotiations. We cannot lose momentum: now is the time to channel the widespread excitement and goodwill into action to ensure association delivers the many opportunities we have all been waiting for.

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