UK leaning heavily on EU academics for ERC grant success

Almost half of ERC grants awarded to UK institutions for 2018 won by EU nationals, as UK sees overall decline in successful bids

July 27, 2018
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The number of UK-based early career academics winning grants from the European Research Council has fallen after a turbulent year for researchers concerned about the implications of Brexit.

The latest figures from the ERC show that the UK has slipped behind Germany in terms of success at winning prestigious starter grants, although it still fares well overall, with 67 researchers at UK institutions winning grants worth up to €1.5 million (£1.4 million) for the 2018 round.

Looking at the nationality of researchers, however, the UK falls further down the list – the majority of individuals who secured grants from UK institutions are from other countries (50 out of 67). Thirty of those grants were won by academics from other European countries, suggesting that UK research relies heavily on talent from elsewhere in the European Union.

Last year, the number of UK researchers winning the grants shot up by more than a sixth, topping Germany with 69 awards, suggesting that there might have been a rush of proposals made in the wake of the Brexit referendum vote.

A total of 3,170 applications were made for the 2018 starting grants, which award funding from the Horizon 2020 programme for ambitious projects to the brightest and best young academics across the world.

As was the case last year, just under 13 per cent of the total applications were funded, with female researchers experiencing a slightly higher success rate (13.7 per cent) than their male counterparts (12.4 per cent).

In this round, German researchers were the most successful, claiming 73 grants, followed by researchers from Italy (42), France (33) and the Netherlands (33). By comparison, 22 British researchers were successful.

The competition also shows some evidence of researcher mobility, as 40 award winners will move country to take up their grant – and 16 of them will come from outside the EU and Horizon 2020 member countries.

The UK government has made reassurances about protecting researcher mobility and has pledged to underwrite EU-funded projects even in the case of a “no deal” Brexit – but fears remain within the sector about the implications that Britain’s departure could have, for instance on the ease of international collaboration and staff retention.

Separate figures published in April reveal that the share of EU research funding going to the UK overall has dropped significantly since 2016.

Commenting on the ERC data, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the funding body, said: “Scientific talent and ambitious ideas are to be found all over Europe, and the ERC aims to give them stimulus wherever they may be.”

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