One in four grants under one of the European Union’s most prestigious research funding programmes has been awarded to UK-based researchers, allaying some fears about the early impact of the Brexit vote but underlining the risk facing British universities if their access to the scheme is curtailed.
The European Research Council said on 6 April that scholars based at UK universities had made 66 successful bids for advanced grants, typically worth up to €2.5 million (£2.2 million) each, more than any other country.
Advanced grants are aimed at established researchers and require no consortia or co-funding. The ERC awarded 269 grants in total, worth €653 million, with Germany (42), France (34) and Switzerland (24) the next most successful nations.
The UK’s success in the 2017 funding round represents a recovery from the 2016 competition, when the UK secured only 41 advanced grants and was outperformed by Germany for the first time.
It also contrasts with the UK’s weakening performance in some collaborative EU research programmes in the wake of the country’s decision to leave the bloc. UK universities suffered a sharp drop of close to half a billion euros in the value of EU projects that they started coordinating in the year after the Brexit referendum.
However, the UK’s continuing participation in EU-funded research post-Brexit remains in doubt, with Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, refusing to commit to associate membership of the next framework programme.
With 2,167 applications having been submitted for advanced grants in 2017, down from about 2,400 the year before, the success rate rose from 9.6 per cent to 12.4 per cent. The ERC funded 83 projects in the life sciences, 126 in the physical sciences and engineering, and 60 in the social sciences and humanities.
Just 17 per cent of advanced grants were awarded to female researchers in 2017, although this was in line with the proportion of applicants who were female.
Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the president of the ERC, said that the advanced grants would fund “audacious” scientific projects that were likely to lead to significant breakthroughs.
“There are many more bright minds with ambitious ideas in Europe that the ERC could fund if we had more means,” Professor Bourguignon said. “That’s why the ERC scientific council argues for more resources for the future while keeping the strategy of using scientific quality as the only criterion for selection.”
The ERC said that the 2017 advanced grants would likely create an estimated 2,000 jobs for postdocs, PhD students and other staff in grantees’ research teams.