The UK will find it “almost impossible” to match the European Research Council’s quality if it creates its own rival programme after Brexit, and would deal an “enormous blow” to science in the UK and on the Continent if it leaves, senior European research figures have told Times Higher Education.
As the Brexit crisis enters its most pressing phase yet, the British government has started work to consider whether it can create an alternative UK grants scheme, also open to international researchers, if the nation does not reach an association agreement to join the European Union’s next seven-year framework programme for research, Horizon Europe.
The highly prestigious ERC, part of the framework programmes, provides grants to outstanding individual researchers and has been likened to European football’s elite Champions League. Without an association agreement, ERC grantees will no longer be able to work full-time in the UK, leading to fears that existing grant-holders will leave and the ability of British universities to attract world-leading scientists will be diminished.
Robert-Jan Smits, who was instrumental to the ERC’s development in his former role as European Commission director general of research and innovation, said that the UK was “one of the strongest science systems in the world, completely interlinked with the European science system”.
“I could not imagine a Horizon Europe without the UK. We need each other,” he added.
Switzerland created a domestic-based grants scheme after a referendum backing immigration restrictions led to a huge diplomatic row with the EU and the nation’s exclusion from the framework programme in 2014.
Asked about the potential for a UK-based ERC alternative, Mr Smits replied: “Talk to the Swiss because the Swiss tried to do that…Of course it was not a success at all.”
The ERC took “years to establish” and “the credibility is the international competition”, he said. “Good luck with it,” he added, in reference to any UK attempt to create an ERC alternative.
Mr Smits said that leaving the ERC “would be an enormous blow” for the UK science system because it has become “the gold standard…It would be almost impossible to compensate for that.” But it would also be a blow “for Europe as a whole” in science, he continued.
Chris Skidmore, the UK’s science minister, told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee earlier this month that while the UK wanted to associate “we have to look responsibly at what we do about the ERC and other grants that may not be available should we not associate to Horizon Europe”, which is scheduled to begin in January 2021.
European elections and the choice of a new commission will delay the start of UK-EU negotiations on association until late 2019 or early 2020 – creating a “tight but possible” timescale, Mr Skidmore has previously told THE. UK concerns about any shift in Horizon Europe away from excellence towards capacity-building in eastern Europe are another potential stumbling block to an association deal – which would cost the UK between €1 billion (£858 million) and €2 billion a year.
Mr Skidmore told peers that he had asked Sir Adrian Smith, the former University of London vice-chancellor, to “lead a major piece of work, a project with the academic community, to look at whether we can establish a new international research fund…open not just to UK researchers but to international researchers”.
Sir Adrian is expected to present this interim findings this summer, Mr Skidmore said in a statement on 26 March.
Helga Nowotny, a former ERC president, said that this idea provoked a sense of “déja vu” in light of the Swiss experience.
“Experience shows that it is not only difficult but practically impossible to create a ‘substitute’ for the ERC,” said the emeritus professor of social studies of science at ETH Zurich.
“Neither can the same high level of competition be created, nor will the amount of funding be available, nor the resulting prestige.”
Professor Nowotny called Brexit “a tragedy for science in the UK and everywhere else in Europe”.
Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and a former member of the ERC’s governing scientific council, said that the ERC’s prestige “rests on many factors including the fact the competition is open across Europe, the grants are large and for five years, and its peer review system is extremely rigorous, using referees from around the world”.
“I sincerely hope that the UK will continue to be able to access ERC funds and all the benefits they bring to science, rather than the UK attempting to provide what may turn into a pale imitation parallel scheme,” she added.
On the potential for a UK association agreement, Mr Smits said he negotiated agreements with Switzerland and Israel while at the European Commission “and if you really want [a deal], you can go for it quite quickly”.
He described himself as “an optimist”, but added that “it’s getting extremely close” on timing. “The clock is ticking.”