ERC winners leave UK due to Brexit uncertainty | Times Higher Education (THE)

Generous offers of Chairs and top-up research funding have already started to entice winners of European Research Council (ERC) grants to leave the UK – uncertainty over the ‘guarantee’ to replace lost grants encouraging others to consider a similar approach.

With UK academics currently ineligible to receive ERC funding due to the stalemate over the UK’s association with the European Union’s flagship research programme, many recent winners of its prestigious Starting Grants , Consolidation and Advances have been inundated with job offers from EU-based institutions.

This month, around 150 UK-based scholars were contacted by the ERC to remind them that they had only two months to transfer their grants to a “new eligible legal entity” or risk losing their funding. .

Many ERC scholarship winners are already on the way, however, having accepted attractive offers from universities in continental Europe.

Ana Cvejic, a senior researcher in the Department of Hematology at the University of Cambridge, who has won an ERC Consolidation Fellowship worth almost €2m (£1.7m), will soon be moving her laboratory at the University of Copenhagen for a professorship.

Dr Cvejic, who has secured more than €6 million in research funding since starting her independent research group in Cambridge in 2012, said she had received three other offers from European institutes, although the Copenhagen offer predates the ERC’s announcement of funding decisions.

“My position is certainly not unique,” ​​Dr Cvejic said. THEstating that many UK mid-career researchers whose jobs were linked to securing research funding could transfer their ERC grants to institutions offering better job security or promises of additional funding.

“When you’ve invested 10 years in running your research group successfully, you want recognition of your accomplishments in the form of a permanent position,” said Dr Cvejic, from Serbia, who said researchers Young and mid-career principals sometimes felt their situation was like a “revolving door that, unless you brought the money and the papers, you walked out of.”

Dozens of ERC grant winners – many of whom are EU nationals – are currently discussing their options on a private Slack channel, explained Dr Cvejic, who said many shared “anxiety” about the potential conditions attached to the offer of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). to finance any project approved by the ERC.

“There are concerns about whether UKRI will fully cover these grants or allow us to work with whoever we want,” she said. “You can also take ERC grants anywhere in Europe, which is not the case for UKRI-backed grants, so your options are more limited.

“Then there is the issue of UK science strategy, with early and mid-career researchers having to fight for grants all the time. Many European countries are becoming very attractive to scientists by investing heavily in research and there is a clearer career path to a full professorship.

Payam Gammage, senior lecturer and group leader at the University of Glasgow Institute of Cancer Sciences and group leader at the CRUK Beatson Institute, said THE that he had received approaches from Spain, Italy, Portugal and Sweden after winning €1.9 million for a five-year mitochondrial DNA project, and said there was lots of online discussions among other ERC winners about moving overseas.

“For some, this grant will allow them to start their own lab – others admit they have been focused on getting an ERC grant for a long time and understandably don’t want to give it up,” said Dr Gammage , who said he would not leave Glasgow as his research relied on other major grants linked to British universities. “Without it, I would 100% leave the UK,” he added.

Others would be tempted, he believed. “If the UK does not partner with Horizon Europe – which seems likely – we certainly fear that we will lose a generation of scientists unless we can create such an attractive alternative,” said Dr Gammage, who added that the UKRI “needs to further flesh out” its “safety net” scheme for ERC researchers.

Another ERC winner, who did not wish to be named, said many UK-based scholars were exploring the possibility of a 50-50 “split appointment” with a university in the UK. EU, which, while “bureaucratically difficult, especially given the short ERC timeline”, would cause “minimal disruption if a willing EU institution is found”.

Another ERC scholarship winner leaving soon is Hendrik Weber, professor of mathematics at the University of Bath, who will bring his consolidation scholarship to the University of Münster. While this scholarship had been a “long” ambition, “I probably would have taken it regardless of the ERC”, explained Professor Weber, who said the “pandemic [spent] with young children away from the extended family, had been a bit rough”.

“It would not be correct to say that the complication of the ERC’s Brexit was the main factor in [leaving] but it made the decision a bit easier in the end,” he added.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com