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Budget should give clarity on the bill for Horizon Europe

02 Mar 2021

Raiding UKRI to fund EU programmes would be a huge step backwards, says Executive Director Prof Sarah Main

The final Brexit deal announced over Christmas was good news for UK science and research. The deal contains the framework for the UK to fully associate to European research programmes, the largest of which is Horizon Europe.

This is a great outcome, and something the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) and others had called for throughout the negotiating period. After several years of Brexit uncertainty, full Horizon Europe participation will renew the wholesale collaboration between UK and European researchers that has proven so beneficial.

But there’s still a big question mark over how this will be paid for.

The government has yet to say how it will fund the UK’s association with Horizon Europe, or who in Whitehall will manage it. Participation in European research programmes has, until now, been paid by the Treasury as part of the UK’s overall subscription to the European Union.

Now that a political commitment to association with European research programmes has been made, a financial commitment needs to follow.

Finding £2bn

Post-Brexit, the Horizon Europe bill will be paid in isolation, rather than as part of the cost of EU membership, and there is no existing budget provision for it. Last November’s spending review could not address the issue, as Brexit negotiations were still underway. 

Based on the terms of the deal, association is likely to cost around £2 billion per year. Scientists and research funders alike are concerned that some or all of this will come from the UK’s existing science budget. 

This is the equivalent of over a fifth of UK Research and Innovation’s £9.1bn budget, or the annual research spend of the two largest research councils: the entire engineering, physical science and medical research portfolios combined.

Meeting a financial commitment of this scale would have an impact across UKRI’s activity. Furthermore, using the existing science budget to pay for Horizon Europe association risks undoing the progress government has made towards the goal of spending 2.4 per cent GDP on R&D across the economy by 2027.

A requirement to pay £2bn per year from existing research and innovation budgets would effectively negate two years of government increases in UK R&D funding, and risk damaging the research base the government is trying to grow.

Given the difficult economic outlook for this budget, Case is not asking the Treasury to make an unbounded commitment to support Horizon Europe participation. Instead, Case proposes that the Treasury provide graduated financial support for the costs of Horizon Europe association, to be dialled down over future years as the UK reaches the promised £22bn research budget in 2024-25. 

To drive an innovation-led health and economic recovery, it is vital that the necessary process of making a financial commitment to Horizon Europe doesn’t damage progress in growing UK science, research and innovation.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has the perfect opportunity in tomorrow’s budget to set out how the UK’s financial contribution to Horizon Europe will be paid for and reassure the sector and the country. Prime minister Boris Johnson has championed the UK as a global hub for science and innovation, and has secured a deal on science with the EU to match. Now is the time to deliver.