UK researchers await NI protocol deal after losing £1.6bn Horizon funds
In the UK parliament on Thursday (23 February), ministers revealed that grants worth up to £750 million had been provided to 1,548 successful applicants as part of the UK government’s Horizon Europe guarantee. They added that an additional £484 million of funding had been made available in November.
UK universities and researchers are among those waiting most anxiously for the compromise agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol to finally unlock access to billions of euros of EU Horizon Europe funding.
However, official documents published this week show that just over £1.6 billion allocated for the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe, or domestic alternatives, was reclaimed by the UK Treasury in “unused funding for Horizon and Euratom association”.
“While we understand that this money would not in its entirety have gone to fund UK research in the current year, any amount that has been lost would be concerning,” said Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor of Swansea University.
Having negotiated access to the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme as part of its Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, UK universities and researchers have been made unlikely victims of the impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol after the EU conditioned its ratification of the UK’s association status on the implementation of the protocol.
The protocol introduced customs checks on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to avoid introducing a hard border on the island of Ireland but has been bitterly opposed by the unionist community in Northern Ireland.
However, officials from London and Brussels have briefed that an agreement following two years of talks on the revision of the Northern Ireland protocol are on the brink of conclusion.
Last August, Britain launched dispute procedures with the EU over its exclusion from the bloc’s scientific research programmes and officials from both sides, and the European research community believe cooperation would be mutually beneficial.
In a letter to European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič last year, Universities UK, a lobby group, urged the EU to “put scientific collaboration before politics”, complaining that academics and researchers across the continent have been waiting for the arrangement to be confirmed.
“Failure to secure UK association to Horizon Europe would be a lose-lose for health, wealth and wellbeing and would do a disservice to future generations in Europe and beyond,” Professor Boyle wrote in the letter to Šefčovič.
UK officials reject the idea that access to the research programme should be tied to the fate of the protocol and complain that the EU executive has repeatedly refused to negotiate on the issue.
The UK government has repeatedly promised that if the UK is permanently shut out from Horizon Europe, researchers and businesses will receive at least as much money as they would have done from the EU programme over the 2021-27 EU budget period.
Under the TCA, the UK would also be allowed to participate in the Copernicus earth and space observation programme in return for a contribution worth around €2 billion per year to the programme’s funding.