Universities call on EU not to restrict Horizon access

Research-intensive university groups representing 77 universities across Europe have signed a joint statement urging the European Union not to restrict access for associated countries, such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Israel, to parts of its multi-billion-euro Horizon Europe research programme, including those covering space and quantum projects.

The joint statement is signed by the Russell Group, the German U15, UDICE French Research Universities, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (the Guild).

Professor Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of LERU, said: “If the European Union wants to strengthen its global competitive position, cooperation with strong and reliable research partners is key.

“Countries such as the UK and Switzerland have been part of the European Research Area for a long time. Losing them as close collaborators would be a huge loss. An overly protective ‘EU-first’ approach could hamper ground-breaking research and innovation which is indispensable for improving the daily well-being of European citizens.”

In December, the UK government and the European Commission agreed, as part of the new trade deal between the two, that Britain would participate in Horizon Europe as an associated country, meaning full participation in the research programme on the same basis as member states.

However, a proposal in the European Commission’s work programme for Horizon Europe suggests it may potentially exclude associated countries, including Switzerland, the UK and Israel, from Horizon Europe’s quantum computing and space research projects.

The joint statement, published on Friday, underlines the groups’ commitment to collaborate across borders to drive innovation and new discoveries and is aimed at deterring an EU-first approach.

It says the UK’s association to the Horizon Europe programme is a promising outcome, welcomed across Europe. As an associated country, the UK will participate in the programme on the same basis as EU member states from the first calls, as confirmed by the European Commission.

“This is a clear signal of the strength of that partnership and the enormous benefits it provides to research. We hope that the same positive signal can soon be given with regard to Switzerland’s association to Horizon Europe,” the statement says.

However, it raises concern about “proposals to restrict the UK, Switzerland and potentially other countries’ access to certain parts of the programme, including quantum and space projects, after an agreement was reached in good faith”.

“We urge the European Commission to reconsider its stance,” the groups representing 77 universities say.

Value of UK science contribution underlined

The statement was published a day after the value of UK scientists’ potential contribution to EU research programmes was underlined by its achievement in landing the most grants of any country and almost a quarter of the total in the last funding round of the 2014-20 Horizon 2020 research programme, announced on Thursday.

Speaking on behalf of the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, Chief Executive Dr Tim Bradshaw said: “Research and innovation are the keys to unlock a global post-COVID recovery but also to tackling the biggest problems facing society and spearheading cutting-edge technology – without international collaboration that becomes so much harder.

“Our university groups which represent thousands of talented researchers across Europe have signalled their determination to continue working together to deliver the best experience for our students and staff while driving the innovations that can improve all of our lives.

“As we reiterate our commitment to cooperation and excellence in research, we urge the European Commission to do the same by not placing limitations on how the UK and other associated counties can use Horizon Europe.”

209 ERC grant winners announced

The European Research Council (ERC) on Thursday announced the 209 winners of its 2020 Advanced Grants competition, in which funding worth €507 million (US$612 million) in total was granted. Of these, 51 will carry out their research in the UK.

ERC President Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon commented: “For this last ERC call under Horizon 2020, over 200 researchers will be funded to follow their scientific instinct and dreams. We look forward to seeing what major insights and breakthroughs will spring from this investment and trust.”

European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel said: “The awarding of more than 200 ERC Advanced Grants in key scientific areas will help boost our scientific research and innovation capacity, for the benefit of all EU citizens. We will be able to continue and reinforce investments with the forthcoming Horizon Europe ERC work programmes.”

Apart from strengthening Europe’s knowledge base, the new research projects will also lead to the creation of some 1,900 new jobs for post-doctoral fellows, PhD students and other research staff.

The future grantees will carry out their projects at universities and research centres across 14 EU member states and associated countries, but the figures highlight the geographical disparities in research success, with four countries taking 130 of the 209 grants.

This means the largest number of projects will be carried out in the UK (51 grants), followed by Germany (40), France (22) and the Netherlands (17).

Fierce competition

The competition for grants was fierce, with only 8% of candidates successful.

Bourguignon said: “Many outstanding researchers with innovative ideas passed the excellence threshold but were left unfunded due to budget constraints – another motivation for the national or regional levels to support these great projects.”

There was increased success for female researchers, who submitted 22% of proposals and were awarded 23% of the grants.

Although there is still a long way to go to achieve gender balance among awardees, since the start of the Horizon 2020 programme the share of women among researchers awarded Advanced Grants has now increased significantly from around 10% in 2014 to more than 22% in 2020.

“We are pleased with the continued positive trend for women researchers showing that the ERC’s sustained efforts on this matter pay off,” Bourguignon said.

According to the ERC, the work funded by the ERC Advanced Grants is set to provide new insights into diverse areas such as political science, bio-based building materials, nanodevices for artificial intelligence, viruses emerging from wildlife and pancreatic cancer.

Examples include:

• Why public opinion does not always transfer to policy: How politicians evaluate public opinion, led by Stefaan Walgrave of the University of Antwerp, Belgium (€2.5 million over five years).

• The future of architecture: Eco-metabolistic framework for sustainable architecture, led by Mette Ramsgaard Thomsen of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, Denmark (€2.4 million for five years).

• Creating chips that perform like the human brain: Neural gradient evaluation through nanodevice dynamics, led by Julie Grollier, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France (€2.46 million for five years).

• Tackling emerging viruses: Experimental virology for assessing disease emergence risks, led by Rafael Sanjuán, Universitat de València, Spain (€2.43 million for five years).

• Pancreatic cancer and obesity: Metabolic mechanisms underpinning obesity-driven pancreatic cancer, led by Karen Vousden, the Francis Crick Institute, UK (€2.5 million for five years).

ERC competitions are open to researchers of any nationality and, in this round, scientists and scholars of 25 nationalities received funding. In this call, 2,678 applicants submitted their proposals in all fields of research.

In future years the UK is set to participate as an associate country.

The total number of ERC grants awarded to scientists and scholars from Europe and beyond is expected to reach 10,000 imminently, according to a statement on the ERC’s website.