ERC grant winners quitting UK amid ‘backstop’ uncertainty

Some grant holders exploring joint appointments with continental institutions as funding deadline looms

April 29, 2022
Source: iStock

Generous offers of professorships and top-up research funding have already begun to entice European Research Council (ERC) grant winners to leave the UK – with uncertainty over the “guarantee” to replace lost grants causing others to consider a similar move.

With British-based academics currently ineligible to receive ERC funding due to the impasse over UK association to the European Union’s flagship research scheme, many recent winners of its prestigious starting, consolidator and advanced grants have been inundated with job offers from EU-based institutions.

This month about 150 UK-based academics were contacted by the ERC to remind them that they had only two months to transfer their grants to a “new eligible legal entity” or risk losing their funding altogether.

Many ERC grant winners are, however, already on their way, having accepted attractive offers from universities in mainland Europe.

Ana Cvejic, principal investigator in the department of haematology at the University of Cambridge, who secured an ERC consolidator grant worth almost €2 million (£1.7 million), will shortly move her laboratory to the University of Copenhagen to take up a professorship.

Dr Cvejic, who has secured more than €6 million in research funding since starting her independent research group in Cambridge in 2012, said that she had received three further offers from European institutes, although Copenhagen’s offer was prior to the ERC’s announcement of funding decisions.

“My position is certainly not unique,” Dr Cvejic told THE, stating that many UK-based mid-career researchers whose jobs were tied to obtaining research funding might transfer their ERC grants to institutions that provided better job security or promises of additional funding.

“When you’ve invested 10 years in successfully leading your research group, you want some recognition for your achievements in the form of a permanent position,” said Dr Cvejic, originally from Serbia, who said young and mid-career principal investigators sometimes felt their situation was akin to a “revolving door in which, unless you bring in the money and papers, you are out”.

Dozens of ERC grant winners – many of whom are EU nationals – are currently discussing their options on a private Slack channel, explained Dr Cvejic, who said many shared “anxiety” over potential strings attached to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s offer to fund any project approved by the ERC.

“There are some worries over whether UKRI will fully cover these grants or allow us to work with whoever we want,” she said. “You can also take ERC grants wherever you want in Europe, which isn’t true for UKRI-backed grants, so your options are more limited.

“Then there is the issue of the UK’s science strategy, with junior and mid-career investigators having to fight for fellowships all the time. Many European countries are becoming very attractive for scientists by investing a lot in research and there is a clearer career trajectory towards a full professorship.”

Payam Gammage, senior lecturer and group leader at the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Cancer Sciences and group leader at the CRUK Beatson Institute, told THE that he had received approaches from Spain, Italy, Portugal and Sweden after winning €1.9 million for a five-year project on mitochondrial DNA, and said that there was a lot of online discussion among fellow ERC winners about moving abroad.

“For some this grant will allow them to start their own lab – others admit they have been focused on getting an ERC grant for a long time so, understandably, don’t want to give it up,” said Dr Gammage, who said that he would not be leaving Glasgow because his research relied on other large grants tied to UK universities. “Without this, I would 100 per cent be leaving the UK,” he added.

Others would be tempted, he believed. “If the UK doesn’t associate to Horizon Europe – which seems likely – there is a definite concern that we could lose a generation of scientists, unless we can create an alternative that is as attractive,” said Dr Gammage, who added that UKRI “still needed to flesh out” its “backstop” arrangement for ERC researchers.

Another ERC winner, who did not wish to be named, said many UK-based grantees were exploring the possibility of a 50-50 “split appointment” with an EU university, which while “bureaucratically challenging, especially given the short deadline from the ERC”, would cause “minimum disruption if one finds a willing EU institution”.

Another ERC grant winner who will be leaving soon is Hendrik Weber, professor of mathematics at the University of Bath, who will take his consolidator grant to the University of Münster. While this grant was an ambition for a “long time”, “I would probably have taken it independently of the ERC”, explained Professor Weber, who said that the “pandemic [spent] with small children far away from the wider family, had been a bit rough”.

“It wouldn’t be correct to say the ERC Brexit complication was the main factor in [leaving] but it did make the decision a bit easier in the end,” he added.

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Reader's comments (2)

None of the academics in the article strike me as typical of most staff. Some originally come from Europe, which is often what gives them the links to get EU money. Also, they could obtain permanent positions if they were prepared to take on a regular academic job mixture of research, teaching and administration. It is difficult to stay as a full-time researcher and be permanent but perhaps a compromise in terms of institution would also help. Although I have sympathy for those who may lose hard-won grants, I would also like to say "welcome to the real world". Many of us were once top students and early-career staff with great prospects but things happen in life and it does not turn out the way we expected. Recently, there have been some very large events in Brexit and COVID but one never knows when something more local (such as a health issue) will strike. One just has to make the best of it.
Grove may wish to dig a little deeper - he'll find that in some cases the UKRI guarantee is not really fit for purpose as designed. Where UK academics are members of consortia, the requirement for them to redefine their status to "associated partners" before signing the grant can then also make the original team ineligible for the grant. This is due to EU rules governing the maximum share of the EU money which can go to each participating country. The EU could just waive those rules - but they have chosen not to. It's a mess and complicated by the underlying politics.