Stay of execution for UK’s European Research Council grants

Funder pushes deadline for awardees to finalise departure plans or lose EU funding back to 29 June

June 10, 2022

The European Research Council has extended by three weeks its deadline for UK-based winners to secure a host institution inside the European Union or lose their prestigious grants.  

The ERC had told UK-based winners of Starting, Consolidator and Advanced grants that they had two months to find a replacement host or provide “justified reasons” for not having one, with a deadline of 8 June.

However, an ERC spokesman told Times Higher Education that the funder had decided to extend that cut-off until 29 June “to make sure that we do not exclude anyone who may still be making arrangements”. 

There are 143 UK-based applicants across the ERC’s early, mid- and late-career grant calls, none of whom have yet transferred their planned projects to an eligible host institution, the spokesman said. So far, just two have told the funder they will stay in the UK and 16 have said they will move with their grants. 

While the deadline is softer than feared, the funder has said that the decision to halt work on individual grant agreements would be irreversible. “If we terminate preparation for a grant, we’ll do it to make sure the funds are not lost at the end of 2022 and can be used to support proposals that were initially put on the reserve list,” the spokesman said. 

The backdrop to the issue is the UK’s association to the Horizon Europe programme, which has been delayed by more than a year by EU and UK disagreements on the Brexit deal’s trade protocol for Northern Ireland. No grant agreement can be signed with a UK-based researcher or entity until the European Commission gives final approval for UK association. 

The academics affected have become a lightning rod for wider hopes and fears about how Brexit will affect UK research, with one reportedly receiving 10 hosting offers from EU-based institutions in the week after he got the funder’s deadline warning letter.  

The prestigious grants offer between €1.5 million (£1.3 million) and €2.5 million, depending on career stage, and applicants can also request up to €1 million to cover the costs of moving countries. 

Some have said that the ease of transferring the grants make them a good “exit strategy” to find jobs in continental Europe for those frustrated by overly competitive UK funding calls. 

In mid-March UKRI extended its offer to replace any funding won from the EU to cover those grants due to be signed before the end of 2022. While some have cited the “guarantee” as a reason to stay in the UK, others have questioned whether a UK-funded ERC grant will be as portable or prestigious as the EU version. 

UK science minister George Freeman travelled to Brussels on the day the deadline letters were sent in an attempt to hold a “last round of talks” on UK association, but UK officials said that his EU counterparts declined a request to meet.

He told an audience at the UK ambassador’s residence that unless association is agreed by the autumn, the UK will pull out and invest its £15 billion contribution to the programme in a domestic alternative.

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