The UK’s association to Horizon Europe (the EU’s flagship research and innovation funding programme which has a budget of €95.5 billion), and other major scientific research programmes was anticipated after Brexit stopped the UK participating automatically in these programmes as an EU member. This expectation was written into the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU which came into force on 1 May 2021 but association has not happened yet. Instead, “Plan B” is looking more likely following nearly 18 months of delays, although (yet another) change of UK Prime Minister and Cabinet could shift the direction of travel - including what Plan B looks like - again.
Association to Horizon Europe is the closest form of cooperation with non-EU countries and allows entities of associated countries to participate in programme actions on broadly equal terms with entities of EU countries.
The UK’s association seems to have become an EU Commission political bargaining chip in the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute. There have been calls from both the UK and EU research communities to de-politicise the matter including a letter from the Chief Executive of The Russell Group of Universities and another from representatives of thousands of EU universities and research organisations to the President of the European Commission.
The next most likely scenarios are that:
- the impasse is resolved and the UK associates to Horizon Europe - this seems unlikely to happen soon given that the issue is now linked politically to the Northern Ireland Protocol, (although a new Sunak administration or new UK Government could change this), or
- the UK implements its own “Plan B”, being an alternative domestic research programme – this is looking increasingly likely, although a new Sunak administration or UK Government could change the detail of what Plan B currently looks like, or
- the UK takes the EU to arbitration over the delay and alleged breach of the TCA – this may happen alongside option 2.
Although all options are still on the table, Plan B is looking more likely after the UK Government initiated formal consultations with the EU this summer to resolve the issue, and no positive updates having been reported after the meeting between the parties on 22 September in Brussels which followed the request. In a press release after the 22 September meeting, the UK Government said that:
The UK has been clear that our preference remains association to EU programmes…The UK government is now urgently considering next steps. Our priority is to support the UK’s world leading R&D sector and we have already outlined potential options for doing so.
The UK Government has set out some detail of Plan B transitional measures if it is unable to associate to Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom, although information on the longer-term Horizon alternative remains fairly vague. The Supporting UK R&D and collaborative research beyond European programmes policy paper was published in July 2022 by the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and now discredited ex-Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng MP. While the detail of Plan B proposals may change under the second new UK Prime Minister since this policy paper was written, we understand that the Horizon Europe Guarantee should not change and is already in place. The Horizon Europe Guarantee provides that if the UK is unable to associate, it will fund successful (in terms of evaluation and eligibility criteria) applications that are submitted to Horizon Europe for funding with an EU final call deadline date before the point of non-association.
In respect of a longer-term Horizon alternative, the policy paper says that:
In the event we are unable to associate, we will use the funding allocated to Horizon Europe at the 2021 Spending Review to build on our existing R&D programmes with flagship new domestic and international research and innovation investments to support top talent, drive end-to-end innovation and foster international collaboration with EU and global partners.
We are keeping a watching brief on the situation with Horizon association and the post-Brexit research funding landscape more generally and await indications from the new government on its intentions and priorities in this respect.
We note that under Boris Johnson’s administration’s 2020 Research and Development Roadmap was ambitious and there was a commitment to be spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D by 2027. In June 2021 Johnson set up a new National Science and Technology Council “to ensure the UK’s world-leading science and ideas turn into solutions for public good, as part of ambitions to become a global science superpower” which was shut down by Truss. UKRI implemented changes to its grant funding terms in April this year to reflect some its Roadmap ambitions and post-Brexit legislative changes including requirements that grant recipients ensure compliance with the National Security and Investment Act 2021, the revised UKRI governance of good research practice policy and an immediate open access requirement for UKRI funded research publications (see our earlier article on this topic here).
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, October 2022