British universities have made a last-ditch appeal to the European Commission to help save their membership of the Horizon Europe funding network, warning that the UK government is preparing to abandon the £80bn programme for joint research projects across Europe.
Representatives of Universities UK (UUK) said ministers were “at an advanced stage” of planning alternatives to membership of Horizon Europe and other EU science programmes, and requested an urgent meeting between vice-chancellors and Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president.
Prof Paul Boyle, the vice-chancellor of Swansea University, said in a letter to Šefčovič: “Many of our members have reported that their researchers have been forced to leave research consortia that are working on projects that would have a tangible positive impact on European and global prosperity, like improving climate data and addressing food security in sub-Saharan Africa.
“The situation is deteriorating every day that the uncertainty drags on.”
Vice-chancellors have become frustrated at the 17-month delay in finalising Horizon Europe associate membership, while the UK government could shortly announce a decision to forgo membership.
Boyle, writing on behalf of Universities UK, said that failure to secure the UK’s place “would be a lose-lose for health, wealth and wellbeing and would do a disservice to future generations in Europe and beyond”.
The UK’s associate membership of Horizon Europe was proposed as part of the post-Brexit trade deal agreed in December 2020. But the EU has delayed its final decision while the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol is unresolved.
A government spokesperson said it was “hugely disappointing” that the EU was delaying accession to the network for political reasons.
“If the UK is unable to associate soon, and in good time to make full use of the opportunities they offer, we will introduce a comprehensive alternative to promote global science, research and innovation collaboration,” the spokesperson said.
While ministers can replace the lost funding, without membership UK academics and institutions can no longer lead projects funded by the EU’s flagship programme.
The EU has begun notifying UK scientists that they cannot hold leadership roles in projects while the UK’s status remains uncertain. The Guardian reported last month that a University of Cambridge astrophysicist was removed from a leadership role in a £2.4bn European Space Agency project.
In his role as UUK’s research and innovation lead, Boyle wrote: “We believe we are close to the precipice, based on the information we have recently received from the UK government. Their view is that the value-for-money case for UK association is weakened every day that the UK is left waiting for the arrangement to be confirmed.
“We believe that a decision to abandon association could come as early as June. Once the decision to shift away from participation in Horizon Europe is taken, we anticipate that it will not be possible to revert to association.
“As a valued European ally, we would like to draw your attention to the gravity of the situation and to request a meeting with UK vice-chancellors to explain in greater detail just how immediate and serious this threat is.”
Vivienne Stern, the head of Universities UK International, said vital research should not be jeopardised by the dispute over Northern Ireland.
“It is an act of political self-harm to sacrifice European collaboration with the UK. Science should not be used as a political bargaining chip and we are running out of time for everyone to realise that,” Stern said.