Making hay while the sun shines

Making hay while the sun shines

Not surprisingly, the recurring theme that ran through the recent UKRO conference that brings together European Liaison Officers (like me) from across the UK to talk about our involvement in the EU’s science programme Horizon 2020, was Brexit. Being a member of the European Union has been invaluable for the advancement of UK scientific research. It has been great value for money too – in the last 7 year programme the UK paid in 5.4B€ and we got 8.8B€ out (See Royal Society report). So the prospect of our departure from the Union brought a sombre tone to the meeting. However, being used to dealing with grim prospects (we routinely face success rates of as low as 2.5%), we all kept smiling and continued our efforts to glean any insights as to how we can give our institutional applications the winning edge – at least until 29 March 2019!

Horizon 2020 has just conducted its interim evaluation and the brief conclusion (there is a 193-page report if you are interested) according to Marnix Surgeon (DG Research & Innovation, EC) is that the programme is “attractive, well-performing, but underfunded”. He estimated that 1.7B€ has been spent writing unsuccessful applications (this leads others elsewhere to conclude that it would be more efficient and better for science to fund via a lottery – see The Spike and aeon). Only a quarter of applications judged excellent and fundable have received funding. Therefore we welcome the recent Lamy report that calls for a doubling of the EU science budget. Increases in national funding would also reduce the pressure on this scheme and therefore hope that the promise by the UK government to raise spending on R&D nationally from the current 1.7% to 2.4% GDP over the next decade is indeed realised.

Other conference sessions covered the usual mix of TLAs and FLAs … JPIs, COST, FET, the MGA (if you are interested in what these mean do come and see me about a career in European Funding!). Speakers from the Marie Curie (MSCA) and ERC Units were basking in the glow of their celebrating 20 and 10 years respectively of funding excellent science and indeed the MSCA had brought along some goodies to help promote their scheme. I of course gathered some loot – so I will be donning the t-shirt and looking for MSCA potential fellows around BI and beyond.

With an eye to the future, the meeting ended with a session on the involvement of countries not in the EU. Norway is an Associated Country and buys its way into H2020 – this would be a great option for the UK as long as we can, given the threatened curtailing of free movement of people. This would allow us to continue as before although probably with a higher price tag. The Swiss know all about the repercussions of limiting freedom of movement as they were kicked out of H2020 when they curtailed the movement of Croatians. Canada gave the perspective of a Third Country – they can be part of consortia as long as the national government stumps up the cash to support it – this leaves them without influence and at risk of double jeopardy. I really hope that we manage to avoid this option for the UK. In the meantime though and until 29 March 2019 we continue to be full members of the EU and its science programme and can apply for fellowships, collaborative projects and ERC grants – indeed all it has to offer – so let’s make hay while the sun shines!