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Pioneer – the Horizon Europe alternative

21 Apr 2023

Earlier this month the UK Government published the Pioneer Prospectus. The Prospectus sets out plans for an alternative R&D programme should the UK not be able to associate to Horizon Europe. This piece looks at some of the detail of the prospectus.

At CaSE we continue to push for association as the best possible outcome and there have been recent positive developments on association with negotiations between the UK and the EU Commission starting on the UK’s financial contribution. Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science Innovation and Technology, recently spoke positively about her visit to Brussels to meet with the EU Commission. However, it is sensible to set out alternatives, particularly as it helps involve the R&D sector in their development.

Pioneer has been designed to support the delivery of the Science and Technology Framework, the UK Government’s recently published roadmap to make the UK a science and technology superpower by 2030. The programme aims to support both discovery research and innovation, recognising that both are important to tackle societal challenges. Pioneer forms part of the Government’s commitment to increase public sector R&D investment to £20bn per year in 2024/25, and would see the UK invest around £14.6 billion over seven years, the same amount set aside for Horizon Europe Association.

Pioneer consists of four interconnected pillars:

Pioneer Talent

To support discovery research and talent through fellowships and awards to researchers across all career stages.

Pioneer Innovation

To support innovation by harnessing business investment on existing strengths across the UK.

Pioneer Global

To support international partnerships through large collaborative projects, including European partners through third country participation in Horizon Europe.

Pioneer Infrastructure

To support existing and new UK and international infrastructure to support the research system, including Public Sector Research Establishments, universities, institutions, national labs and research organisations.

Details of the new programme

Pioneer is not intended to replicate all aspects of Horizon Europe. It seeks to maintain many of the benefits of Horizon, but it also focuses on developing new opportunities to leverage the UK’s strengths.

The proposed programme is designed to be flexible and agile. Different funding mechanisms across the pillars include both shorter term funding that is easier to access alongside longer-term funding. It also includes awards and fellowships that are larger and longer in duration than those available under Horizon Europe. It is also welcome that Pioneer contains funding for third-country participation in Horizon Europe.

The programme aims to reduce bureaucracy, drawing on the Tickell Review published in 2022. Application processes would be tailored to the award or fellowship on offer, with reduced bureaucracy, ensuring researchers can start their projects quickly.

To build on the UK’s existing strengths, the programme proposes harnessing science and innovation clusters across the country, building on Innovation Accelerators and Investment Zones. CaSE’s report on the Power of Place highlighted the importance of focusing on existing strengths to support innovation across the UK.

The focus on infrastructure is welcome. This includes planned investment of up to £1.7 billion by 2027/28 to support the diverse landscape of national and international R&D infrastructure and laboratory facilities that might not usually be able to access Horizon funding. At CaSE we published a report highlighting the essential contribution of PSREs to the R&D landscape and how to better leverage this. It would be important to continue to pursue this plan alongside Horizon Europe should the UK associate.

Challenges and questions that remain

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the details of some of the proposals, and how these would be implemented, including whose responsibility it will be. It is expected that parts of the programme, such as the Talent Pillar, would be delivered by existing organisations in the UK R&D landscape, including the National Academies and UKRI. However, the final delivery partners for other parts of the programme, such as the Innovation Pillar have yet to be confirmed. This leaves the question as to who these partners would be and who has the capacity and capability to do this.

The new programme aims to reflect the aspects of Horizon most valued by researchers, prestigious ERC and MSCA grants. However, as CaSE members have already highlighted, the prestige of European programmes, such as ERC grants, would be difficult to replicate. It will be a difficult and lengthy process to develop a programme with the same level of prestige as the ERC and there is a worry that the split between the talent and innovation pillars of Pioneer could be much more heavily weighted towards innovation than is the case with Horizon Europe.

The Government has invited feedback on the proposal as it develops the plan in more detail. CaSE have been calling for such engagement for some time, and therefore we are pleased to see a strong focus on co-design and collaboration. If the UK does not associate with Horizon Europe, it would be a huge disappointment for the R&D community, so it is very important that the community feels ownership of any alternatives. CaSE looks forward to working together with the Government to ensure the proposals are fit for purpose.

Furthermore, certain parts of Pioneer, on Innovation, Global and Infrastructure, are not mutually exclusive with Horizon Europe association. They would be valuable additions to the research landscape in the UK alongside association, and should be a focus of any future uplifts in investment.