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Science funding under threat, as universities ‘alarmed’ by UK government’s silence

Universities leaders have expressed fear at reports that the Treasury has not set aside funding to support the UK’s continued participation in the Horizon Europe science and innovation funding programme.

Horizon Europe is the successor to the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. The European Commission aims for Horizon Europe to boost EU science spending by half from 2021 to 2027 and has proposed a €94bn budget for the scheme.

The UK should be able to continue participating in Horizon Europe under the UK’s agreement with the EU for its post-Brexit relationship; the UK has been a net beneficiary of the scheme.

However, following silence regarding the scheme in the budget, there are concerns that the UK government is not willing to contribute the cost of participating in the scheme (which was previously included in EU membership fees) and instead expects to draw from the existing research budget to cover costs. Universities UK (UUK), an organisation which represents senior leadership of 140 UK universities, is calling on the government to provide urgent clarity on the future of participation in Horizon Europe.

The group says it is “increasingly alarmed” by reports that the Treasury will not make funding available to support the UK’s association with Horizon Europe. Other parts of government have been “evasive” when asked for a funding commitment.

Ministers were told that a £1bn cut in funding would be equivalent to cutting more than 18,000 full-time academic research post across the UK, weakening the UK’s attractiveness as a hub for talented researchers and private and international investment.

Writing in a letter to the Prime Minister, UUK president Julia Buckingham said: “If this position is maintained, and if [the department for business, enterprise, innovation, and skills] is required to fund the costs of costs out of the existing science budget, it will amount to an effective cut of something in excess of £1bn. This would be roughly equivalent to the cost of funding the entire Medical Research Council and Science and Technology Facilities Council combined, which is deeply concerning.

“In my view, these cuts would represent a grave strategic error, undermining the capacity of UK science and research in a manner which could fundamentally weaken the system in the long run.”

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, added: “If that achievement is not followed through with the necessary additional investment, it could leave a shortfall of up to £1bn this year in existing R&D budgets. That reduction would not only deal a serious blow to UK science and research, but it will hobble the government’s ambitions for a swift, innovation-fuelled recovery.

“We are calling on the government to provide urgent clarity on its plans to fund Horizon Europe and on its commitment to core research and innovation investment in the UK.”

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