COLLABORATION

Australia wants to partner up with UK for access to European funds

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Australia is seeking access to Horizon Europe funding.

Australia’s research universities hope to join forces with the UK to boost its chances at bidding for European funds, as talks progress on plans to open up associate membership to Horizon Europe.

Towards that end, the Group of Eight (Go8) universities peak body will be writing to UK’s Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson, who was recently reinstalled to the post after his brother Boris became prime minister.

The universities will propose that the two countries back one another’s application to become associate members of the Horizon Europe programme, giving them access to some €94.1 billion of research funding.

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Brexit has thrown a spanner in the works for the universities of both countries.

Deal or no deal, when the UK exits Europe this October, at stake will be billions of pounds worth of research funding. Scientists have warned against a messy no-deal departure, saying it would leave British science and innovation in a lurch, disrupting the progress of many EU-backed science programmes, among other consequences.

Jo Johnson
Jo Johnson is the UK’s new Universities & Science Minister.

Such an outcome would also hurt research progress halfway across the world in Australia. Australia has in the past relied on joint bids with UK institutions for European funds. According to Science Business, of all third countries, Australia is the fourth-highest collaborator in Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe’s predecessor.

Brexit would see this funding stream removed, adding further stress on a sector already struggling to cope with funding issues.

After cutting AU$2.1 billion to funding for student places late 2017, the government slashed AU$328 from university research to pay for regional education commitments costing it some AU$135 million. 

The cuts sparked major outcry from Australia’s educators and research communities, who warned of their impact to science and innovation in a country already struggling to keep pace with its global competitors.

In such a landscape, gaining access to Horizon Europe funds could help cushion the blow.

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Go8’s plan to write to Johnson follows remarks made by his predecessor Chris Skidmore to a parliamentary committee that working together with non-member countries could help the UK could strengthen its case for European funds.

Skidmore had told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that the UK should “argue with other associate members for a new form of association”. A week later, Johnson replaced Skidmore in a Cabinet reshuffle.

According to Times Higher Education (THE), Go8 Executive Director Vicki Thomson will now ask the new minister if he agrees with the views of his predecessor.

“We would be imploring him to consider the opportunities that may exist in working closely with associate countries like Australia,” she was quoted saying.

Thomson added that seeking membership with Horizon Europe wasn’t solely about winning access to European funds

“There’s a strategic imperative in being at the table of research collaborators, wherever they are.

“This would give us direct access for the first time to research and research funding in the European context. It would diversify our research collaboration,” she was quoted saying.

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The plan also follows a visit to Australia and New Zealand last week and this week by the European Commission’s Director-General for Research and Innovation Jean-Eric Paquet. 

It was Paquet who said some months ago that the programme’s associate membership would be extended to include more non-member nations located much further outside Europe. Associate membership is a status that allows research participation under the same condition as member states.

The reason for doing that is to strengthen Europe’s competitiveness for science and innovation through collaborations with other strong science countries outside the continent.

Paquet had said that he expected up to 30 countries to join the growing list of associate members, which currently has 16 countries on it, including Switzerland and Norway. Towards that end, the ambassadors of eight countries (Canada, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa) have already held talks with EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas last December.