The UK’s science community is urging the prime minister, Boris Johnson, to match funding to rhetoric, as arguments continue over where the budget for the UK’s association to the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme will come from.

This year’s bill could be anywhere between £1–2 billion, potentially taking up to 20% of UK Research and Innvoation’s (UKRI) budget. The uncertainty – with just days to go before the end of the financial year – compounds a last minute 70% cut to research programmes paid for from the international aid budget, which was itself cut by 30% last year. 

The damage that this is doing to relations that have been built up over the decades is enormous

Richard Catlow, Royal Society

The UK’s exact contribution to Horizon Europe is still unresolved because a delay in agreeing the seven-year €95.5 billion (£82 million) programme means this year’s budget allocation is still being finalised. Under an agreed formula, the UK will pay £14 billion over the entire programme.

Prior to Brexit, funding for EU science programmes was part of the UK’s member contributions, but there has never been an open debate about how it should be paid for after Brexit, says James Wilsdon, who works on the governance and management of research at the University of Sheffield.

However, the government has repeatedly made commitments, the latest in last summer’s R&D roadmap, that if the UK didn’t associate to Horizon Europe it would replace any lost funding. The assumption, therefore, was that association to Horizon Europe would be funded in addition to the existing R&D budget, says Martin Smith, policy and advocacy manager at Wellcome. The government has been asked by a number of organisations for an allocation to be made for the potential costs of joining Horizon Europe, he adds, but the answer has always been ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it’.

‘Existential threat’

Universities UK has warned that removing even £1 billion from the core R&D budget would amount to cutting 18,000 full time research posts and risks the loss of another £1.6 billion in private R&D investment that could be stimulated by public funding.

Such cuts would be felt doubly hard by medical research charities, which already face a £330 million shortfall as a result of the collapse in charitable fundraising during the pandemic. Taken together the potential scale of cutbacks constitutes an ‘existential threat’ to scientific research, Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, told the Times Higher Education.

‘It’s a spectacular own-goal by government,’ says Wilsdon, especially given commitments to increase science spending to £22 billion by 2024–25. Last year’s spending review earmarked another £1.4 billion over the next three years for UKRI, and confirmed £800 million over the same period for a new research agency to fund high risk research to be called Aria – again expected to be new money. ‘The absolute worst thing is very rapid changes in the financial position. The research system doesn’t work like that – it takes time to build things up, and it certainly takes time to dismantle them,’ adds Wilsdon.

Last year, UKRI provided £422 million for research from Official Development Assistance (ODA), through schemes such as the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), but now finds itself with £125 million for the coming year and a £120 million gap between what it’s been allocated and what it’s already committed. This is forcing it to axe on-going research projects in areas such as infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance.

The Royal Society has also had to cancel grants – agreed just weeks ago – to 30 early career African researchers, after its GCRF funding was cut by £17 million. ‘As well as destroying those projects and damaging careers, just imagine what this does for the reputation of the UK, as a responsible and trusted partner,’ says Richard Catlow, the Royal Society’s foreign secretary. He adds that ‘the damage that this is doing to relations that have been built up over the decades is enormous’, especially when set against the geopolitical context of countries such as China making extensive investments in developing countries in Africa.

March’s Integrated Review of security and defence again set out the government’s vision for the UK as a ‘science and tech superpower’ but even as it was published, members of the House of Commons science and technology committee expressed concern about double counting of science budgets. Giving evidence, Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former adviser, agreed that ‘there is potentially a danger about double-counting, accountancy gimmicks, but in the end that responsibility is going to rely on Number 10, and how much it is going to prioritise science and technology in the future’.