No Reason for Good Cheer
The true cost of Horizon
The government’s announcement that the UK will re-join the EU Horizon research umbrella was welcomed by many academics and politicians. But as John Marenbon explains, good cheer is misplaced. The UK, a global leader in research, should reap the benefits of Brexit and found a new ‘super league’ of the best research globally, not tie itself to a cumbersome, bureaucratic EU project.
This week the government announced with fanfare that the UK will once again be part of Horizon, the EU research collaboration scheme for science and the humanities. Since Brexit, academics have almost unanimously been pressing for us to continue in it. Now their relief is mirrored by the self-congratulation of ministers, who believe that they have negotiated a good, money-saving deal. Both are misplaced.
Membership of Horizon is a mistake, which both academics and the government will come to regret. There are four strong reasons against it.
First, though international cooperation in academic subjects is highly desirable, why with the particular group of countries in Horizon? They comprise EU member states, along with 16 associated countries in Europe or on its fringes, such as Turkey, Ukraine, Tunisia, Norway, Albania, Georgia, Kosovo and Israel. New Zealand, the only extra-continental member, has just a partial attachment. The choice is based on geography, not excellence in research. As a project to strengthen European cohesion, or indeed as an expression of the nascent European Super-State, it may make sense. But it is not as the best way to promote academic research.
The best research is global, not driven by a single continent, and some countries have much more to offer than others. In order to promote the best research, countries that lead worldwide in science and other branches of learning should club together. The UK, a global leader in most branches of study and research, could, freed by Brexit, set up an international super-league for academic cooperation. Instead, the government, was too pusillanimous to seize such an obvious Brexit opportunity. It bowed to a scientific and university establishment that hates Brexit. Since 2016 it has tried to preserve the status quo ante, rather than instituting a bold plan for the future of international research. Having signalled its wish to remain in Horizon, it promised an unambitious home-financed alternative, should we be excluded.
Second, Horizon’s greatest advocates admit that it is excessively cumbersome and bureaucratic. That is hardly surprising, given that the members vary so widely and yet must, if they are EU countries, be treated equally; and given also that oppressive bureaucracy has been the hallmark of some EU states for centuries and is likely to flourish within a multi-national organization subject to little effective scrutiny. By contrast, British research funders are adept at showing a light touch.
Third, rejoining Horizon means that funds for the humanities will continue to be poured into large, often multi-national research projects. This model of research is not suited to the humanities, where the best work comes from years of devoted, often disorganized, study and reflection by individual scholars. Horizon-type funding, which is based on the model of the experimental sciences, promotes a pseudo-scientific approach. It encourages research findings tagged according to the popular fashions of the moment and thought to be ‘paradigm-changing’, rather than work that genuinely extends the boundaries of knowledge and thinking.
Moreover, the practical consequences are bad for young scholars, for universities and bad students. Horizon-type projects take the best scholars away from teaching and create a Purgatory of postdocs, moving uncertainly from one short-term research job to another, and a Hell of temporary replacement lecturers, paid for nine months of the year to do the Euro-élite’s teaching. For a small part of what membership of Horizon will cost, the government could fund what the humanities desperately need: tenured teaching jobs, with time for research, for the best scholars whatever their specialism.
Fourth, and most important of all. We need look only so far as Switzerland, a non-EU country that seems, from the outside, to be so closely connected with the bloc that it belongs to it in all but name. Switzerland was part of the Horizon project, but then in 2014 it was excluded, not for reasons to do with scientific research, but because a referendum had endorsed immigration quotas for EU citizens. In 2016 it was readmitted. Then in 2021 it was barred again, this time because talks over consolidating the many Swiss-EU treaties into a single agreement collapsed.
But we need not look even as far as Switzerland. We need just to consider our own case. Part of the agreement with the EU for our leaving was that we should remain in Horizon. But membership was none the less suspended by the EU, not for academic reasons, but because of disagreements about customs arrangements for Northern Ireland. Only when these differences were resolved by the Windsor Framework – that is to say, when the UK gave way to the EU’s central demands – could arrangements for association with Horizon be discussed. For the EU, clearly, where non-member states are concerned, the aim of Horizon is less to gain new knowledge than to act as a weapon in its negotiations with them.
Belonging to Horizon is the EU’s reward for good conduct, to be removed as soon as country steps out of line. Britain is one of the strongest countries in the world for research, second only to the US in its universities. What can the government be thinking when it congratulates itself on arranging association on such terms? It has handed the EU a powerful weapon to use against us, whenever there is a disagreement in any area. Nor should the academic community feel relieved, since so long as we are a non-EU associate in Horizon the future of our long-term research depends on the whim of the leaders in Brussels.
Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy: an historical and philosophical introduction and Pagans and Philosophers. The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz. Politeia publications include Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities co-published with New Direction, and The Battle for Britain’s Cultural Identity – Against the New Normal.