U.K. outlines ‘Plan B’ research funding to skirt EU impasse

The U.K. government has outlined how it will replace the European Union’s flagship research funding scheme with a domestic program if ongoing Brexit squabbles prevent the country from participating in the EU program. The outline, published on Wednesday, describes how the government’s “Plan B” would give U.K.-based researchers the funding they would have had access to as part of the 7-year, €95 billion Horizon Europe program.

The 2020 Brexit withdrawal agreement reached by the United Kingdom and European Union was supposed to allow U.K. participation in the Horizon scheme. But the European Union has avoided finalizing the Horizon deal because of ongoing disputes over trade in Northern Ireland. The U.K. government still hopes to participate, but “the continued delays are causing intolerable uncertainty for our research and business community,” wrote Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state for the government department that oversees science funding, in a document outlining the alternative funding scheme. Although the government had already begun to replace Horizon funds lost to ongoing uncertainty, more detail on its longer term plan to replace the scheme had been slow to materialize.

“Plan B” mechanisms would include replacements for Horizon grants to individual researchers, as well as ways to help U.K. researchers participate in international collaborations. The policy also encourages U.K. researchers to continue to apply for Horizon funding, despite the impasse, by guaranteeing replacement funds if a Horizon “association” deal still has not been finalized by the time the grant kicks off. Grant applications that are “in flight”—submitted to the European Commission, but not yet assessed—would be taken up by domestic grant review programs.

“Of course everyone’s preference remains association,” says Martin Smith, a policy manager at the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. charity that supports research. “What’s described here is probably the best that you can do under the circumstances.” The United Kingdom had set aside £15 billion to pay into Horizon over the next decade, with the expectation that its researchers would win roughly this amount in Horizon grants. Replacing Horizon funding is about more than just reallocating the money domestically, Smith emphasizes: It will be more difficult to replace the effortless international collaboration allowed by Horizon funding.

The announcement helps alleviate fears that U.K. money earmarked for Horizon might be shunted away from science if a final deal is not reached, says James Wilsdon, a science policy researcher at the University of Sheffield. Although the outline does not detail how much funding will be allocated to each of Plan B’s mechanisms, it does signal that the government is sticking to its commitment to use Horizon funding on domestic research funding, he says.

Plan B would dovetail with Horizon Europe’s existing policies on grants for team research. U.K. researchers would still be able to 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 Horizon-associated countries and bring their own funding to the table. The plan suggests the United Kingdom won’t impose any limits on how many of these projects the country will help finance, pending another review in October 2024. That’s good news, Smith says, because any internal restrictions on these projects could make EU researchers think twice about bringing U.K. collaborators on board. But U.K. researchers would not be able to take a lead role on any Horizon-funded research consortia, an EU restriction that is already causing complications for existing collaborations.

More details about how the schemes will be funded, and by how much, are expected later this year, if the government decides to give up on a Horizon deal, Wilsdon says. Details on domestic replacements for Copernicus—the EU Earth observation program—and the European Atomic Energy Community are still being worked out.

The plan to replace lost EU funding schemes doesn’t address wider problems facing U.K. science because of Brexit, Smith says. The prohibitive costs of visas—which can cost as much as £15,000 for a foreign researcher moving to the United Kingdom with a family—also detract from the United Kingdom’s ability to attract international talent.

Political headwinds complicate Plan B’s immediate future. The outline comes just before the parliamentary summer recess, shortly after the resignation of science minister George Freeman, and amid political turbulence as the Conservative Party prepares to choose its next leader. It’s not clear yet whether the front-runners in the leadership race will match outgoing leader Boris Johnson’s commitments to science funding, Smith says.

The leadership transition does offer a glimmer of hope for a final Horizon deal, says Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, because it opens the door for a reset in EU-U.K. relations. “It offers a chance for a bit of a refresh and a rethink,” he says. “And Horizon Europe, being such an obvious win-win for both sides, would be a good way of doing that.”

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