UK universities lose grants and staff as Brexit uncertainty grows

Leading academics express doubt about UK government’s ability to underwrite large EU funding packages

April 9, 2019
A protester holds a "Science needs EU" banner on a march and rally organised by the pro-European People's Vote campaign for a second EU referendum in Parliament Square, central London on March 23, 2019
Source: Getty
Money troubles: scholars shortlisted for ERC grants are worried they will not receive the funds

Leading professors have warned that uncertainty over the UK’s future access to European Union research funding is already undermining grant applications and forcing academics overseas.

Scholars employed by British universities would lose access to new funding under the existing Horizon 2020 programme – including prestigious European Research Council grants – in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Delays in passing a withdrawal agreement may leave the UK outside Horizon 2020’s successor scheme, Horizon Europe, when it starts in 2021, and a no-deal departure could see British researchers excluded for the duration.

Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, said that she had been shortlisted for a €10 million (£8.6 million) ERC grant but felt that she was “unlikely to get it now”, given the uncertainty about whether the project could be completed.

Professor Greenhalgh said she doubted that the UK government would be able to underwrite such a substantial sum of money.

“If I were to win the grant, and we left Europe without a deal, there’s no question I’d lose the funding,” she said.

Another UK academic, who asked not to be named, said that she and her colleagues had been excluded from opportunities to work with longstanding collaborators on the Continent who feared the consequences of having British scholars on grant applications. A bid for EU funding “appeared to have been blocked” by French researchers who used what she described as “dirty tricks”, such as citing EU procurement laws.

While her own relationships with collaborators had experienced no problems, Professor Greenhalgh said there was “an overwhelming sense now, that [EU collaborators] are losing patience”.

“They’ve been good to us and understanding for so long, but we are beginning to see a breakdown in collegiality,” she warned. “There is no doubt collaborations will crumble and we will be left out in the cold.”

Other leading academics have questioned whether the UK government’s pledge to underwrite the value of EU research grants that have already been awarded would materialise.

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford, said that her ERC grant, which is 18 months in, covers her salary and that of several staff. “If there was hard Brexit and the government did not cover the lost funds, there would be many redundancies,” she said.

“I don’t trust [the Treasury] to cover anything right now, as they have been spending huge amounts on all kinds of damage limitation and I doubt academic research would be a high priority. The uncertainty is crippling”.

Growing numbers of researchers have indicated that the uncertainty over access to EU funding has driven them to move abroad.

Earlier this year Catherine Heymans, professor of astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, told Times Higher Education that she was moving to the University of Bonn after winning a €1.5 million grant backed by the German government.

“It’s Brexit. The day after the referendum I started looking for alternative funding, because over my career about 90 per cent of my funding has come from the EU,” she said.

THE understands that, of two academics at Anglia Ruskin University who won ERC grants last year, one has already made the decision to leave the UK for an EU-based institution, for fear of losing the funds.

Other academics including Vera Troeger, professor of quantitative political economy at the University of Warwick, and Andreas Goldthau, professor of international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, told The Guardian that they were moving back to the Continent because of Brexit.

Latest ERC figures showed that UK-based scientists secured more than one in five awards in the latest handout of its highly sought-after advanced grants, securing €112 million.

But Joanna Burton, a senior policy adviser at the Russell Group, said the political crisis over Brexit meant that “the future of our participation in the ERC hangs in the balance”.

“While applications are holding up for now, researchers making long-term career decisions are considering their options and urgently need to know if they can bid for ERC funding from the UK after Brexit,” she said.

“If we crash out without a deal, access to the ERC will be cut off with immediate effect and the government must provide alternative funding to replace these vital funds.”

The annual conference of the Centre for Global Higher Education last week heard that UK university leaders were in “cloud cuckoo land” if they thought their institutions would still be the collaborators of choice for European researchers after Brexit.

Ludovic Highman, who worked on a CGHE research project focusing on Brexit, said that European universities would continue to “do exactly what we are doing and they do not need us to do it”.

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Reader's comments (1)

Yes, my experience too- I've been frozen out of EU applications since 2016 because of the uncertainty, ending an unbroken run of 4 major EU grants over the last 12 yrs (among others). I'm looking to move to an EU institution. I absolutely hate what Brexit has done to the UK. No future here- and this is a common view amongst successful UK based academics.