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Research: take control of our funding

The Francis Crick Institute, London, the biggest single research centre in Europe – and created without the help of the European Union. Photo Alex Yeung/shutterstock.com.

The government’s fear of real independence from the European Union is nowhere clearer than in funding for research – and it’s a fear shared by too many who work in research…

The government seems incapable of taking full control of how taxpayers’ money is used to support scientific endeavour in Britain.

The latest turn in a long history of dithering and delay came on 8 June. The government announced that it was extending for a further three months the provisional arrangements to guarantee funding for British researchers and research organisations that have had their bids accepted by the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme.

How long can the government carry on extending “provisional” arrangements? Indefinitely, apparently. The arrangements were introduced in November 2021. Since then they have been extended four times – in March 2022, September 2022, December 2022, and now this June.


Researchers are understandably frustrated. The programme is a lucrative source of research funding, with a proposed budget of 12.8 billion euros (£11 billion) in 2024. Before Britain voted to leave the EU, British researchers won 12.1 per cent of the previous Horizon programme’s funding.

Researchers here and in the EU are united: they want Britain to join Horizon. In a statement published two days after the Windsor Framework which apparently cleared the way, all Britain’s main non-government research funders urged swift action, as did the CBI.

They were joined by key European research alliances. Kurt Deketelaere from the League of European Research Universities (LERU), for example, said: “The UK has some of the most prominent research-intensive universities in the world (of which five are LERU members), and their association to Horizon Europe will be of immense value.”

It’s not as though Horizon Europe is the only option. In April, science minister Michelle Donelan unveiled the £14.6 billion Pioneer programme, a fleshed-out version of the “Plan B” announced last year.

Pioneer is a detailed plan to support research and innovation guaranteeing the same level of investment that association to Horizon Europe would entail, should negotiations to join that programme fail.

‘It’s not as though Horizon Europe is the only option…’

And fail they may well do. In the short term, at least, there is huge uncertainty in Brussels with the sudden departure of Mariya Gabriel, the EU commissioner responsible for research. Given the tortuous way the EU commission is appointed, she won’t be replaced. Instead her brief will be covered by the competition commissioner, who has a full workload as it is.

The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement included a commitment from both sides that Britain would affiliate to Horizon Europe. Since then, nothing concrete has happened.

At first the delay was clearly down to the EU. Brussels refused point blank to negotiate the terms of access to Horizon Europe while disagreement continued over the Northern Ireland Agreement.

When that roadblock was cleared at the end of February with the signing of the Windsor Framework, many expected swift movement on Horizon Europe. It hasn’t happened.

The government is reported to be concerned to ensure that affiliation to Horizon Europe will be “value for money”. And it should be: the affiliation fee of some £2 billion per year is equivalent to around 20 per cent of Britain’s budget for research and development in 2021.

A particular concern is that Britain has played no part in shaping the programme’s priorities. So affiliation to Horizon would mean that upwards of £14 billion of British taxpayers’ money will be spent between now and 2027 on research projects that align with the EU’s political and economic agendas.

Some of Horizon Europe’s scientific priorities do align with those of Britain, but others – especially in the social sciences – are purely there to seek academic justification for the underlying principles of the EU.

Swathes of British academics have happily buried their snouts in this trough of money for years, creating an army of EU cheerleaders in our universities. These included whole departments of support staff whose sole job was to assist researchers to bring more EU money into their universities. Many of those jobs have now evaporated.


Dependency on Horizon programmes over many years has created a body of researchers who could not exist without it – particularly in the arts and humanities. The most recent figures available (from 2014) suggest that in Archaeology, Classics, IT, Media Studies, Law and Philosophy more than a quarter of their total funding came from EU programmes.

EU funding for those disciplines is certainly more generous than that from the British government. But what independent nation allows other countries to set its research priorities and budgets? If there’s a good case for a research project, it should be argued for in Britain and in line with national priorities.

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement, signed by the Johnson government on 30 December 2020, includes another funding twist. This agreement set out the basis of Britain’s contribution to Horizon, and created a significant imbalance – to the detriment of Britain, naturally.

‘What independent nation allows other countries to set its research priorities?’

If Britain joins Horizon Europe and – as is likely – British researchers win, on merit, a greater share of the funding than anticipated, our government will have to pay more if the excess is 8 per cent or higher. But on the other hand it would only get a rebate from the EU if our researchers win 16 per cent less than expected. If that doesn’t seem fair, well, it isn’t. But it’s what the EU insisted on.

And there’s worse in the agreement inherited from the Johnson government. On top of the funding imbalance, the British government agreed that the ultimate arbiter of any disagreement about funding decisions under Horizon Europe would be … yes, the European Court of Justice.

Surprisingly, the EU is not insisting on Britain paying for 2020 and 2021, when it was not associated and benefiting at all. But universities and other research bodies will not get anything like full value from 2023, having to bid for programme money from a standing start.

There are other cost issues arising from the EU setting Horizon priorities. A significant proportion of Horizon Europe money, for example, goes to support for the Marie Curie programme of international postdoctoral mobility and training, from which Britain stands to gain relatively little.

The Marie Curie budget comes out at 6.6 billion euros for the seven years of Horizon Europe, and would cost Britain close to £140 million a year, which could be better used. But for many of the EU’s friends in Britain, such costs are dismissed. They talk only of how important it is to be part of Horizon Europe.


Paul Nurse, one of 15 Nobel prize-winners who wrote to prime minister Rishi Sunak last year urging association to Horizon Europe, criticised even the existence of the Pioneer plan. “I think we are dithering too much, frankly,” he told MPs in April, “and I think we’re getting mixed messages with Plan B.”

There’s nothing mixed about ideas such as those Nurse put forward. Thinking like that is not helpful: it sends a clear message to the EU that it should play hard in the negotiations over Britain’s association to Horizon Europe. Which is just what happened with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The government should hold firm. International cooperation in science has been going on for centuries, and it will continue with or without help from the European Union.