The UK remains at risk of being excluded from the European Union’s highly prestigious European Research Council grants for world-leading academics after Brexit, a British MEP has warned.
MEPs on the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee last week voted on proposed regulations for Horizon Europe, the EU’s next research programme starting in 2021 – including for “mono-beneficiary” funding such as ERC grants and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions encouraging transnational and interdisciplinary mobility for researchers.
On association, the wording agreed says that “with the exception of [European Economic Area] members” and future and potential EU member states, “mono-beneficiary parts of the programme may be excluded from an association agreement for a specific country, in particular those dedicated to private entities”.
If holders of ERC grants for outstanding researchers were unable to work full-time in the UK, it could deliver a major blow to the nation’s ability to attract and retain world-leading researchers.
The drafting of rules for Horizon Europe, including which parts associated countries will be able to access, will now be finalised in “trilogues” – negotiations between the EU’s parliament, council and commission.
Clare Moody, a UK MEP for the South West and Gibraltar, was part of the committee and voted against two articles on Horizon Europe passed by MEPs.
She said: “I think there’s a danger we will be out on that front [the ERC]. It is very, very important that…we are able to be involved in the ERC [and] that we are able to be involved in MSC grants.”
Dan Nica, a Romanian MEP who is one of two European Parliament rapporteurs on Horizon Europe, had been pushing to have associated countries excluded from the “excellence” pillar of the programme, including the ERC.
The aim within the EU is to conclude discussions on Horizon Europe by March, before the European elections in April and the election of a new commission in the autumn, said Ms Moody. Some suggest that it will take at least a year for the UK to negotiate an association agreement with the EU after that.
Asked if the UK could miss out on the start of Horizon Europe as a whole in 2021, Ms Moody said: “Potentially, yes. I don’t think anyone thinks the UK is going to meet the deadline of the end of 2020 on current demonstration.”
In better news for the UK, the wording agreed by the European Parliament committee says that researchers in non-member states in multi-participant grants have the right to be lead coordinators on those grants “provided that it benefits the union and that the protection of [the] EU’s financial interest is ensured”.
Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said that the positions agreed by the committee’s decisions prompted a “sigh of relief” for him, as he expected further negotiations within the EU to produce a “workable” agreement for associated countries’ participation.
He argued that the committee’s wording “doesn’t prescribe…the end of British and other third-country participation in Horizon Europe”. He said of the wording on mono-beneficiary grants: “You can understand this. Would you extend the ERC to South Korea or Australia? Maybe you wouldn’t.”
A Universities UK spokeswoman said that Horizon Europe rules “should include retaining the status quo from Horizon 2020 [the current programme] that associated countries participate fully in all parts of the programme. This benefits the entire European Research Area by opening up research and innovation networks, maximises the size and depth of the competitive pool, and benefits the economy, society and people across the UK.”