Fears for UK research as EU postdoc applications dry up

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 15 Jul 2021

Image of A raft capsizes during a raft race with people falling into the water as a metaphor for Fears for UK research as EU postdoc applications dry up.

Source: Getty

A Brexit-related shortage of applications for junior research posts from the European Union is likely to harm the UK’s ability to win grants from Horizon Europe, senior scientists have warned.

While UK universities have been urged by the country’s main funder, UK Research and Innovation, to apply for grants from the EU’s flagship research scheme, worth at least €95.5 billion (£82 billion) over the next seven years, some research leaders have expressed concerns that dwindling numbers of postdoctoral researchers arriving from the Continent may damage UK laboratories and harm their ability to win funds.

Peter Coveney, director of the Centre for Computational Science at UCL, whose laboratories have led EU-funded projects worth more than €17 million over the past five years, told Times Higher Education that his recent efforts to recruit postdocs had produced not a single application from an EU scientist.

“At least half of applications typically used to come from the EU, but people have shown a lot less interest in recent years – and, in the past two years, it seems the game is up,” said Professor Coveney on the lack of EU applicants.

“When you’re not getting any applicants from the EU it is serious because these countries have education systems that rival our own so we’re missing out on a huge number of very well-educated people,” he said, adding that he had been forced to readvertise some positions on multiple occasions because the right candidate could not always be found.

“If you get a pool of candidates that don’t cut the mustard, you have to try again, which means I’m constantly having to think about this process,” said Professor Coveney, who said that the absence of top-notch junior EU researchers may make it harder to maintain the quality required to win EU grants.

“Everyone in academia is striving to attract the right people for these positions – without them it’s much harder to bring visibility to your work and get the best groups to collaborate with you,” he said, adding that the Horizon system was “designed to bring together teams from different countries and if people are disillusioned with the UK, it’s harder to get them to participate with you”.

Thibaut Jombart, a biometrician at Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that he had also witnessed a dramatic fall in postdoc applications from the EU.

“I’ve sat on a few selection panels in recent years and it was mostly UK candidates, with a lot fewer applying from Europe, which means the average level of applicant is not as good,” said Dr Jombart, who himself arrived in the UK as a postdoc just over a decade ago.

“It’s not certain that I would be appointed now because employers are having to cover various fees for EU postdocs that they previously didn’t,” he said, adding that new bureaucratic hurdles and red tape, including visa fees and additional checks regarding accommodation, might have put him off from applying in the first place.

“I did not go to the US because I would have had to face similar things there,” he said.

Historically, young EU scientists had sought postdoc positions in the UK or US ahead of other countries given their scientific strengths but Brexit and uncertainty over travel caused by the pandemic, which had left many UK-based EU scientists unable to see family for months, was making them consider options closer to home, said Dr Jombart.

“Anything that takes away from that sense that Britain is the best place to do a postdoc is detrimental for UK academia,” he said.