Arguments are raging over the UK’s involvement with the Horizon Europe scheme, which in 2021-22 is making €14.7 billion in funding available, from a total pot of €95.5 billion (excluding associated-country contributions), to back research and innovation to help Europe’s economies make green and digital transitions. 

In the UK, Innovate UK and its parent organisation UKRI have been coordinating access to Horizon schemes for Britain’s innovators, many of whom have benefited from European investments under previous iterations. 

However, the UK’s formal participation in Horizon Europe has been stymied by arguments over the Northern Ireland Protocol, with the European Parliament insisting that dispute must be settled before the UK’s full access to the scheme can be greenlit. 

In February, the European Commission said in a Q&A that UK organisations were then eligible to apply for funding and support.

Many UK companies, universities and research labs, have since initiated R&D schemes under Horizon Europe, so the viability of those programmes is being damaged by the ongoing fallout from Brexit, which has complicated relations between former partners.

In October, reports began emerging of UK research teams not being paid because the UK’s formal association with Horizon Europe is being blocked.

European researchers have backed the UK’s immediate participation, saying that international R&D cooperation should not be threatened by unrelated political manoeuvres – particularly in the wake of the COP-26 conference in Glasgow this month, which focused on the urgent need to create a sustainable global economy.

In his October Spending Review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak set aside £6.9 billion (€8 billion) of the UK’s science budget for Horizon Europe between 2021 and 2025, more than double the funding Whitehall has allocated to Innovate UK over the same timescale. The budget has been set under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

However, Sunak has reportedly drawn up a ‘Plan B’ should negotiations with Europe fail, which – among other things – will involve withholding the UK’s significant budgetary contributions. 

That said, the government would have to step in with replacement funding to avoid UK research programmes under Horizon Europe being scrapped. 

Even so, funding would not be the only problem, as the UK’s innovation agency explained earlier this year. Before the Northern Ireland dispute threatened participation in the scheme, UKRI and Innovate UK described Horizon Europe as an “incredible opportunity”.

Research and innovation are inherently global, and 95 percent of R&D and innovation is conducted outside the UK. Horizon Europe provides us with a unique and stable platform to collaborate internationally,” said UKRI in a June 2021 statement. 

Horizon Europe will be the largest ever transnational research and innovation programme” it continued, with funding enabling partnership between UK organisations and “the best researchers and innovators in Europe and beyond”.

The stakes are certainly high, said UKRI: “The sizeable funding is not the only reason to engage. It certainly oils the wheels, but more importantly, the ambition, long-term commitment, and focus of the programme allows us to collaborate on leading-edge research and innovation projects that respond to challenges such as the greening of our energy systems and the development of advanced therapeutics.

“Through the platform for collaboration, Horizon Europe also allows participants to access essential capabilities, influence future standards and gain access to supply chains and markets.”

The latter is not something the UK can afford to undermine, so let’s hope the UK can move to a political position where the government’s actions are no longer actively undermining its ambitions to be a global influencer post Brexit.

In related news, Robotics4EU, one of the organisations funded by Horizon Europe, published a survey and report on the public’s attitudes to robotics earlier this year.

The document explored issues such as robotics’ socio-economic impact, the ethics of deployment, data, legal, and education issues, and the question of public engagement at a time of negative publicity about Industry 4.0 technologies.

The survey showed that robot acceptance is presumed by the public to be a responsibility of the developers, followed by end-users and policymakers. 

Stakeholders believe that non-collaborative industrial robots are widely accepted but robots that interact with their environments – intelligent and collaborative robots – are not yet “technologically ready for wide-spread implementation”. 

The report urged greater collaboration between policymakers and the robotics community, to counter the “lack of communication and technical knowledge possessed by policymakers”. 

It is important to demonstrate that robots are “advantageous for work and are not intended to replace humans”, added the organisation.