Winners of 27 European Research Council grants leave the UK and Switzerland because of Horizon Europe impasse

20 Dec 2022 | News

But 213 researchers chose to stay put, giving up their awards. These have now been reallocated. Meanwhile, the UK has extended its safety net for ERC grant winners

A total of 27 European Research Council (ERC) grant winners have left the UK and Switzerland because the two countries are not associated to Horizon Europe, but the vast majority decided not to move and have given up their awards.

Of 174 UK-based applicants 23, or around one in eight, have decided to relocate, while only four of 66 researchers based in Switzerland did so.

The final tally was made after the ERC said it had finished the complicated business of reallocating the 2021 wave of ERC grants rejected by UK and Swiss winners to applicants who were on a reserve list and just missed out the first time around.

Maria Leptin, president of the ERC, said ERC staff had been working hard to redistribute the grants. “It does put a burden on the ERC,” she told Science|Business.

Researchers based in the UK are still able to apply to the ERC, because although association has not been agreed, the country is still technically on a path to join. Switzerland was briefly a candidate country in 2021, which for a period left the door open for applications from its researchers too.

But with the Commission blocking Swiss and UK association because of wider political disagreements, the ERC is unable to award grants to successful applicants based at UK or Swiss institutions.  

This has left grant winners with an agonising choice: leave their institutions for the EU in order to hold onto their ERC money, or stay in the UK or Switzerland, and make do with national alternative grants instead.

When UK or Switzerland-based winners turned down their awards, the ERC offered the grants to applicants who almost made the cut first time around.

This reserve list also included Swiss and UK researchers, who were given two months to decide whether to leave to keep the grants, said an ERC spokesman. “The procedure was repeated until we exhausted the budget,” he said.

The ERC announced it had finished this process of redistribution, and published a list of those who had been selected for funding on December 16.

It also unlocked an extra €120 million for starting grants, after higher-than-expected demand.

UK guarantee extended

On 19 December, the UK government announced that it would extend its guarantee to fund UK-based winners of Horizon Europe awards to cover all calls that close on or before March 31 next year.

The guarantee was put in place in November 2021 as a safety net to provide an equivalent award to ERC winners, and provide consortia members with the money to fund their share of the project.

“We hope the EU will acknowledge that this latest three-month extension shows the UK government and science community remain committed to full association and the benefits it will unlock for all parties,” said Joanna Burton, policy manager at the Russell Group of UK research intensive universities.

“Extending the guarantee not only provides reassurance to researchers but also keeps the window for association open and allows the UK and EU the time needed to resolve their differences,” she said.

There is still no higher-level political movement between London and Brussels that would unlock Horizon association. But UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has said he wants a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key plank of the post-Brexit settlement that the UK has been threatening to override, by Easter.

“We are one big European research community all hoping that the Brits can join in again,” Leptin told Science|Busines. “And it's painful, but I think we just stick it through until we have certainty. And I hope that can be in one direction rather than the other.”

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