UK warned of ‘exodus’ of research talent as ERC clock ticks

Written by: John Morgan
Published on: 4 Feb 2022
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Business executive walking over Europe map on airport floor to illustrate UK warned of ‘exodus’ of research talent as ERC clock ticks

Source: Getty

The UK has been warned to expect a possible exodus of leading research talent to European Union universities if it does not gain access to the bloc’s research programme as European Research Council (ERC) grant winners in the UK are approached by continental institutions.

The UK’s association to Horizon Europe continues to be delayed, with the European Commission accused of using the issue as a bargaining chip for leverage in wider Brexit wrangles with Westminster over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

If the UK were to find itself outside Horizon Europe, one major loss would be that researchers working full-time in the UK would no longer be eligible for ERC grants – the prestigious system sometimes described as the “Champions League of research” or “mini-Nobel Prizes”.

That could mean leading researchers leaving the UK to seek ERC funding – with some of those who won ERC grants since the turn of the year already having received offers to join universities in EU member states or associated nations.

Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, senior lecturer and Royal Society university research fellow at the University of Manchester, was awarded an ERC starting grant for research on graphene-based atomic-scale sieves, which could have applications ranging from fuel cells to desalination.

“If we stopped being eligible for ERC grants and European funding, I would probably consider leaving the UK,” he said.

“I have been offered a position in Germany, which could become more attractive if ERC funding stopped being an option for me in the UK.”

David Doyle, senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of Exeter, was awarded an ERC starting grant for a research project aiming to provide transgender people with evidence-based information on what to expect when undergoing gender-affirming hormone therapy.

He said he had been “contacted by institutions outside of the UK about my intentions”.

Given the UK government’s announcement that it will guarantee funding even if association is not concluded, Dr Doyle was “relatively confident that the research would be able to go ahead as planned”.

However, he added, as the “value of the starting grant is not just the money awarded but also the boon to reputation and exposure that such a prestigious award allows”, he was “uncertain if ‘replacement’ funding from the UK government would have the same benefits for my personal career and the public profile of the project in question, at least outside of the UK”.

Although it would be difficult to relocate the project to the continent, it was “not impossible”, Dr Doyle added.

Universities in Germany and the Netherlands are expected to be at the forefront of those bidding to attract UK-based talent. But the Republic of Ireland, the only English-speaking nation left in the EU, has previously been open about its wish to attract ERC grant holders from the UK, and institutions in less high-profile higher education nations are also said to be active.

If the 46 ERC starting grant winners from the UK announced last month are to receive their funding from Brussels, the UK’s association must be finalised by April.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said that she had “heard of several instances of people with ERC grants being approached with attractive job offers”. “The UK government has issued a funding guarantee to provide funding for grants awarded which can’t be taken up because of ongoing delay, but we are also calling on the [European] Commission to urgently progress our association to Horizon Europe to sort out this uncertainty once and for all. My fear is that if they don’t do this soon, we’ll lose the opportunity for good,” she said.