Pioneer plan, UK’s alternative to support research and innovation

By Giuliana Miglierini

While the position of the UK with respect to the participation to Horizon Europe (HE) is still pending, the British government has announced its new Pioneer plan aimed to provide a domestic alternative framework for research and innovation.

The plan is deemed to “protect and support UK science, research, technology and innovation (SRTI) sectors, should association to Horizon Europe on fair and appropriate terms not be possible”.

The planned total budget for investment (£14.6 billion up to 2030) corresponds to the same amount the UK government would have allocated to participation of the country in Horizon Europe. According to UK science and technology minister Michelle Donelan, the government is still committed to pursue HE association but “We must ensure we have an ambitious alternative ready to go should we need it,” she said.

This means the Pioneer plan might be activated in case of failure of the still ongoing negotiations with the European Commission. The plan has been specifically developed to provide a robust reference framework supporting UK’s Science, Research, Innovation and Technology (UKSRTI) network, and it is complementary to other, already existing R&D incentives. It shall also integrate with other relevant pieces of legislation in the field of research and innovation.

Four key pillars to boost UK’s research

Four different strategic lines of action have been considered in order to build a comprehensive approach for R&D and innovation. The publication of the plan is also a message from the UK government to the EU Commission, to mark the position of the country as a ‘science and technology superpower’ in the case that UK would be unable to join Horizon Europe.

The four key areas of action identified by the Pioneer plan are the attraction of talents, innovation, global collaboration and infrastructures.

Pioneer Talent is a programme aimed at attracting both domestic and international talents to run their research in the UK. The estimated investment amounts to up £2 billion by 2027/28. According to the plan, the new programme should be delivered in partnership with UKRI and the UK’s National Academies. A new set of doctorates, fellowships and professorships would be available through Pioneer Discovery, an investigator-led research programme, set up to provide grants of longer duration, higher level and flexibility compared to HE. The framework would also provide support for specialised leadership training, international mobility, entrepreneurship and commercialization of results. According to the plan, Pioneer Discovery would make available each year up to 800 studentships, 370 international fellowships and 260 early-, mid- and late-career stage fellowships and awards.

Pioneer Innovation would invest in the creation of partnerships between all actors involved in business-led innovation across sectors and technologies, including research bodies, industry and the third sector. The planned investment is up to £3.5 billion by 2027/28, targeted to a selected number of ambitious programmes aimed to sustain the transformative effort towards new models of collaboration.

Funding of the selected projects might vary from short- to medium- and long-term, and it would be based on quick-start catalyst programmes, challenge prizes and Eureka actions. Health innovations, green industrial growth, resilient UK, and transformative technologies are the identified priorities. Pioneer Innovation should allow for fast-track commercialisation and deployment of new technologies and innovations.

Pioneer Global aims to build broaden international SRTI collaboration beyond the EU, funded with a planned budget of £3.8 billion by 2027/28. The programme should focus on bilateral, minilateral (small groups of countries collaborating on specific, urgent global challenges) and multilateral collaborations (i.e influencing standards and increasing reliance on global supply chains). Global technology transfer should also be addressed. Discovery-driven bottom-up collaborations with researchers around the globe should drive the funding of activities.

For collaboration to European research programmes, the indication coming from the plan is to make reference to funding for all eligible consortia for Third Country Participation in Horizon Europe until 31 March 2025. News on how to address this issue after that date is expected to be released by the UK government in October 2024.

Pioneer Infrastructure is the programme aimed at building a completely renewed, once-in-a-generation network of world-class national and international high-quality R&D infrastructure andlab facilities supporting the previous lines of action. The planned investment is up to £1.7 billion by 2027/28, with the final goal to fully exploit the potential of UK’s Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs), universities, institutes, national labs and research organisations.

The pending negotiation for participation to HE

Despite the commitment of UK government to associate the country to the current European research and innovation programmes, including Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom Research& Training (as established under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA), negotiations with the European Commission are still ongoing. “But association would need to be on the basis of a good deal for the UK’s researchers, businesses and taxpayers”, is written in the Pioneer plan.

According to the document, the UK government has maintained active investments during the two-years delay, committing over £1 billion through the Horizon Europe Guarantee, and £684million of direct funding to UK Science and Research, Fusion and Earth Observation. Launched in November 2021, the Horizon Europe Guarantee should remain active up to the end of June 2023; grants issued by the UKRI up to the end of February 2023 amounted to more than £882 million.

One of the last interventions in support to the closure of the negotiation came from the director of the Francis Crick Institute and Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse, during a hearing at the House of Commons science and technology committee (see here more on Science & Business).

According to Mr. Nurse, the Pioneer plan would turn to send mixed messages, and the British academic community might be not enough protected from the risk of being excluded from HE due to the yet unclear commitment of the government to positively close negotiations.

An editorial signed by Science’s Editor-in-Chief H. Holden Thorp also summarises the sentiment of the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Ottoline Leyser on the long-waited definition of the adhesion procedure to Horizon Europe. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much wide press interest there’s been in the UK’s association to Horizon Europe,” she said to Thorp, “and I think it signals a much wider, very positive trend of real and deep interest in research and innovation across the UK system.”

The association to Horizon Europe should had closed in March 2023, after the signature of the Windsor Framework agreement by PM Rishi Sunak and President Ursula von der Leyen. Among open issues is the UK’s financial contribution to HE, even if according to the European Commission the country should not be requested to pay the full association fee for the two years it has been excluded from the research programme.

The Windsor Framework political agreement in principle signed on 27 February 2023 focuses mainly on customs requirements for goods entering Northern Ireland (NI) from Great Britain, a fundamental passage to ensure NI’s unique access to the EU single market. Two decisions related to the operative phase of the Windsor Framework were adopted by the European Council on 21March 2023, respectively establishing the EU’s position in the Joint Committee and the Joint Consultative Working Group set up under the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.