UK researchers land ERC grants but may not keep them

If the United Kingdom loses its right to European Research Council (ERC) grants and access to the European Union’s ninth Framework Programme, dubbed Horizon Europe, a long tradition of cooperation in research and innovation will be put at risk, scientists warn.

‘Stick to Science’ – a campaign started by a group of UK universities aiming to convince the EU that scientific collaboration should be above politics – has made the warning upon the announcement of the most recent ERC grants on 27 April.

As it stands, these results of the council’s 2021 competition saw funding of €624 million (US$660 million) going to 253 leading researchers across Europe. Almost a fifth will be conducted at UK institutions, including 38 at leading Russell Group universities, the Russell Group told University World News.

But there is a catch. The EU has yet to formally accept that the UK can be an associate member of either ERC or Horizon Europe programmes, because of the stand-off over revising the terms of the UK-EU Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of the withdrawal agreement for post-Brexit relations between the UK and EU. Without UK association, ERC grant holders would have to move to an EU institution to be able to make use of the grants.

The protocol is a thorny political issue. It allows Northern Ireland access to the European Single Market, maintaining a soft border with the Republic of Ireland, but creates the need for checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, which some describe as placing an economic border in the Irish Sea. It has been opposed fervently by unionists in the north, and the UK government has been trying to negotiate changes.

Until Britain accepts a deal with the EU over the protocol, the European Commission has said it will not allow formal association and participation of the UK with Horizon Europe and the ERC.

Clock ticking for ERC grants

The clock is therefore ticking for ERC grants. The council appended to its announcement the condition that the grants could only be paid upon formal EU-UK association, unless a UK researcher relocated to an EU higher education institution.

If there is no deal, the current provisional association collapses and the offer of ERC grants lapses.

Stick to Science said the failure “will damage long-standing research networks built over years and the quality of European cutting-edge research such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence and climate mitigation”.

It warns that Switzerland, also outside the EU, is facing a similar threat, with its talks over a permanent comprehensive treaty with the EU being stalled. Stick to Science says the EU needs research relations with both Britain and Switzerland. It emphasises that the UK is a “science superpower” and the two countries have some of the best universities in the world.

There is indeed a lot to lose for all sides. Horizon Europe is the largest research and innovation programme in the world with a budget of around €95.5 billion (US$101 billion).

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK research universities, said: “We are encouraged to see the Government restate its determination to secure Horizon association and we hope an agreement can be finalised as soon as possible. Association would be a win-win for the UK and our international collaborators at a time when cooperation across Europe is more vital than ever.”

A spokesperson for the UK Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said the delay in agreeing final terms has been detrimentally affecting important collaborations between the UK and European partners.

“We recognise the EU’s delays to formalising the UK’s association to Horizon Europe have led to uncertainty for researchers, businesses and innovators based in the UK,” he told University World News.

“This is why the government has guaranteed funding for eligible, successful applicants to Horizon Europe who are expected to sign grant agreements by December 2022 and who have been unable to sign grant agreements with the EU.”

Applications for this funding will open in May to allow maximum time for the EU to finalise UK association and for successful UK applicants to sign grant agreements with the European Commission.

UK funding alternatives

But if the EU continues to delay UK association beyond this point, British applicants will still have access to UK funding under the guarantee to enable them to continue their research in the UK and in collaboration with their European partners.

If the UK ultimately fails to associate with EU programmes, the BEIS assured anyone eligible for research grants that “we will be ready to introduce a comprehensive set of alternative programmes”.

University experts doubt such solutions will be effective, however. Dr Payam Gammage, a scientist at Glasgow University’s Beatson Institute, told The Guardian: “The idea the UK could replicate the system and apparatus of something like the ERC in the near to medium term is, at best, unrealistic.”

Thomas Jørgensen, director of policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association (EUA), argues that if the agreement is not resolved in the short term, “the process of association would get seriously derailed and we would possibly have a British, much smaller, version of the ERC, while the ‘real’ ERC loses a key partner”.

He fears that the EU may drag out the finalisation of the agreed association of the UK to Horizon Europe to the point where the UK loses interest and-or sets up some kind of domestic programme, “like we saw with Erasmus+ and the Turing Scheme”, he told University World News.

Erasmus+ is the EU’s study abroad, staff and student exchange and higher education capacity building programme, while the Turing Scheme is the UK’s replacement which focuses on outbound, non-reciprocal short-term study abroad stays and work placements for UK students.

The ERC “giving an ultimatum to researchers to find a new host is a problematic signal, because it points to the possibility of the EU not finalising the (very few) steps that remain to association”, Jørgensen added.

He argued that “there is no reason to couple” the Northern Ireland and the research issues, as “other parts of the [EU-UK] Trade and Cooperation Agreement [TCA] are working despite Northern Ireland, so there is no reason why association to Horizon Europe and other programmes should not go ahead”.

At the European Commission, Johannes Bahrke, coordinating spokesperson for the digital economy, research and innovation, told University World News: “We continue to the mutual benefit in cooperation in science, research and innovation, nuclear research and space.”

Political reset needed

However, “the political setting of this file should be recalled”, he said, stressing “there are serious difficulties in the implementation” of the UK-EU Brexit withdrawal agreement and parts of the TCA.

He said the TCA “provides neither for a specific obligation for the Union to associate the UK to Union programmes at this point in time, nor for a precise deadline to do so”.

He hoped for a “prompt resolution that would allow the establishment of the association to Union programmes”, boosting “cooperation opportunities in research, space and other areas”.

In practice, in most cases UK entities will be able to continue cooperation within Horizon Europe research consortia, he said – non-EU partners do participate. However, funding from the EU budget would normally not be available for UK partners under such circumstances, he explained. They would need to obtain finance from other sources until the UK is associated.