Attempts in hand to poach 46 UK-based winners of recently announced ERC awards, as uncertainty continues over backup grants

03 Feb 2022 | News

Researchers awarded ERC grants still don’t know if the UK will associate to Horizon Europe in time for them to sign the grant agreements. Now, they are being enticed to relocate to EU universities

Universities in the EU are “pitching” for UK-based winners of European Research Council (ERC) grants to relocate, according to Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities. 

“A kind of football transfer system is starting up in continental Europe looking at the best people,” Deketelaere told a House of Lords European Affairs committee hearing this week.

The move to lure top researchers away from the UK comes as the uncertainties over the UK’s promised backup funding scheme continue.

Last month, 46 UK-based winners of ERC starting grants were announced, the first under Horizon Europe. But they are still waiting for details of how to apply for UK government safety net funding in case the country fails to associate to Horizon Europe in time, ratcheting up uncertainty, just as some may be eyeing a move to the continent to hold onto their grants.

ERC statistics show that of 46 grant winners who are due to be hosted by UK institutions, just 12 are British nationals. ERC grant holders are free to carry out their research at the institution of their choice. The grants includes funding to set up research teams, meaning the loss resulting from a decision to relocate will not be limited to the intellectual capital of the grant holder alone.

Last November, the country’s main funding agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), announced it would guarantee funding for the “first wave” of successful UK applicants to Horizon Europe.

As the clock ticks down to when grant agreements need to be signed, there are still a number of problems with the backup scheme, Peter Mason, head of international engagement at Universities UK told the committee.

“Researchers are still waiting for the green light to register their grants for funding with UKRI,” Mason said.

This holdup is “creating some additional stress,” he said.

In December, in guidance about the safety net, UKRI said further details about the information it needed from grant winners would be provided in “due course”, but since then, no further information has been given.

While the guarantees are very welcome, “UKRI needs to open the process,” Mason told Science|Business.

The safety net also doesn’t change that fact that unless the UK associates, UK researchers can’t take a coordination role in certain Horizon projects. UK partners have been withdrawing from coordination positions because of uncertainty over association, Mason added.

And UK universities are also concerned that the government’s guarantee is too limited. It currently covers only the “first wave” of seven calls, including European Research Council starting grants and several European Innovation Council calls.

This means that UK applicants for later calls have no security yet that their grants will be covered if they are successful. This is “somewhat problematic”, Mason told the committee. “We’d definitely welcome an expansion of that call.”

It is “urgent” that the guarantee scheme is expanded, said Stephen Conway, executive director of research services Oxford University.

“Grant agreements are now coming through from the European Commission for signature across a range of Horizon schemes and UK partners are being required to switch their participation status to a self-funded basis since we are currently ineligible to receive EU funding,” he said. “This is where we are reliant on the UK underwrite guarantee and we are having to seek case by case confirmation of eligibility from UKRI.”

Problems for European partners

It’s also becoming a problem for EU universities looking to collaborate, Deketelaere told the committee.

“It is clear for example that it [the guarantee] concerns the ERC grants, but it is not so clear for many other grants that can be won under Horizon Europe,” he said. 

“The question comes: for how long? Is it going to be extended?” Deketelaere said. “This remains quite obscure at the end of the day for many continental partners.”

UK-based ERC grant holders still don’t know whether the UK will associate in time for them to sign grant agreements, and decamping to an EU country would ensure they keep their ERC grants.

If they stay in the UK, they should be able to access the promised backup funding. But there are concerns this UK grant could be less prestigious, or less portable than the ERC original.

EU universities are also trying to poach Swiss ERC winners, who are in a similar position to their UK counterparts. They will have to move to the EU or an associated country to be absolutely sure of keeping the grant. Like the UK, Switzerland has said it will replicate the grant if they stay. However, there is still time for the UK to associate – but not for Switzerland.

The Swedish Research Council is explicitly offering Swedish universities money to help them poach ERC winners in Switzerland.

“This creates an opportunity for Swedish higher education institutions…to recruit prominent junior European researchers,” it said last month. “The Swedish Research Council is now offering a grant to cover the costs relating to such recruitment.”

For both the UK and Switzerland, wider diplomatic spats are holding up association to Horizon Europe. Last year, talks broke down between Brussels and Bern over a wider framework of relations.

The UK and EU have already agreed Horizon association, and the UK says it is ready to sign on the dotted line. But research commissioner Mariya Gabriel told Science|Business in October that “transversal” issues like the Northern Ireland Protocol need to be resolved first.

UKRI did not respond with a request for comment before Science|Business’s deadline. But its international champion, Christopher Smith, sought to reassure academics in late January, tweeting that the UK government had “guaranteed funding for the first wave of eligible, successful applicants to Horizon Europe who are unable to sign grant agreements with the EU prior to formalisation of the UK’s association to the programme.”

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