UK science suffered a significant setback in June, when the European Research Council (ERC) confirmed that 143 UK-based researchers would forfeit their prestigious ERC grants unless they relocated to a country in the European Union. The researchers were first told in April that their grants were in jeopardy, forcing them to confront a dilemma that once seemed unimaginable: either move their laboratories overseas or put their funding at risk. This predicament was a direct consequence of the United Kingdom’s failure to ratify an agreement with Horizon Europe, the EU’s research-funding programme, which has committed €95.5 billion (US$97 billion) for research funding between 2021 and 2027. The ERC’s grant budget is part of Horizon Europe.
The need for an agreement between the United Kingdom and Horizon Europe is the result of Brexit, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU in 2020. Negotiations are ongoing.
On 20 July, the UK government announced a back-up plan to be put into action in the event that it can’t re-establish ties with Horizon Europe. This ‘Plan B’ will replace any lost grants from Horizon Europe — including ERC grants — with grants from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the United Kingdom’s research-funding agency.
UK-based researchers are already coping with the aftermath of the schism between the nation and the EU. Nature spoke to 4 of the 143 individuals whose ERC grants have been jeopardized because of the disruption. Two have chosen to move to a university in the EU to keep their ERC grant. Two have opted to stay in the United Kingdom in the hope that they will eventually be reimbursed by UKRI. All four see the rift as a troubling sign for UK science, both now and in the future.
ROSANA PINHEIRO-MACHADO: ‘I was desperate’
Anthropologist at the University of Bath, UK.
I received a €2-million ERC grant in March to study the links between precarious work and authoritarian politics in the global south. I study politics, but I also live with its consequences. I’ve already had to leave my home country of Brazil because of persecution from the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro and its supporters, and now I need to leave the United Kingdom because of political actions.
When I came to the University of Bath in 2019, I thought I would retire here. I love the department, I have a lot of great colleagues and Bath is a lovely city. I thought I had a chance to finally settle somewhere. I felt that I was really building something. But it’s over. Next January, I’ll be restarting my project at University College Dublin (UCD).
I originally applied for the ERC grant instead of a UKRI grant because Brexit and other issues made me concerned for the future of science in the United Kingdom. I felt that it was important to have the access that comes with an ERC grant. You can be part of ERC scientific councils and meetings; you’re one of the decision makers in European science.
About ten days after my grant was announced, I received a mass e-mail from the ERC saying that researchers in the United Kingdom could lose their grants. I just panicked. I was in complete shock. I was desperate.
In those early days, I couldn’t get any information about UKRI grants, but I didn’t want a UKRI grant anyway, because I didn’t trust the UK government. I decided very quickly that I wanted to move to a place where I could keep the ERC grant. But the process wasn’t easy. I received offers from several universities that included terrible compensation packages.
The worst part of this whole experience is that I’ll be losing the top researchers on my team, especially the postdoctoral researchers. We built this project together, but because of family issues or visa requirements, they won’t be able to come with me to Dublin. I’ll be hiring eight new people for the project. Those are eight jobs that Bath will be losing on my grant alone.
The people at UCD have been very friendly and welcoming, and the university is offering a laboratory with a lot of resources. I feel like I’m moving on to something better. It’s been a horrendous experience, but it could be a great move professionally.
I just regret that, for the second time in my life, I have to move because of short-sighted politics and populist fears.
KATHARINA WOLLENBERG VALERO: ‘It all fell apart’
Evolutionary biologist at the University of Hull, UK.
In March, I received an ERC grant worth nearly €2 million to study the impact of climate change on different cold-blooded species. Winning that grant was a huge accomplishment for me. I had been out of research completely for five years while teaching at a small college in the United States. Not many people manage to get back into research after so long. I had to fight for any sort of funding, large or small.
As soon as I heard that I could lose the ERC grant, I started scrambling. The ERC grant recipients were told that UKRI would replace any lost funding, but we couldn’t get any details. My colleagues and I asked for more information about where that money would be coming from and when it might arrive. I waited for four weeks for clarification from the UK government, but none arrived. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable walking away from the ERC grant without a solid alternative in place, so I had to take action.
I hoped I could set up a 50–50 arrangement with a university in the EU, whereby I’d spend half of my time there and half of my time at the University of Hull, my current location. Such arrangements are tricky; you have to lead your group in one country while maintaining commitments in another. Nevertheless, I was willing to give it a try. I reached out to pretty much every EU university within a commutable distance. Two of them agreed to give me 50–50 appointments, but Hull declined to participate. The university could have made it work, but chose not to.
Because I was unable to have a 50% appointment at Hull, I decided to find a 100% appointment somewhere else. I wrote short, friendly letters to many universities, telling them that I was in limbo. University College Dublin has a fellowship scheme that’s funded by the Irish government, so it was able to hire me quickly.
Moving isn’t easy, especially with a family. We bought a house just last year and now we will have to start again. But my research will go on. UCD has excellent facilities and the ERC has allowed me to postpone the start of my project to February 2023. My contract at UCD starts at the beginning of the 2022–23 academic year, so I’ll have time to get things set up.
Brexit was just starting when I arrived at Hull in 2017. I knew there was a risk that UK-based researchers might lose ERC funding, but I applied anyway. I thought the UK government and the EU could work it out, but it all fell apart.
FLORIAN MARKOWETZ: ‘This feels like a disaster’
Cancer researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK.
I’m in a privileged position because I work at an institute funded by Cancer Research UK in Oxford. The ERC grant — which would have funded a project to study chromosomal instability in cancer — wasn’t essential for my survival. I never considered moving to the European Union for the sake of the grant. I’ll be staying at the University of Cambridge. I understand that a lot of other researchers aren’t as fortunate.
This still feels like a disaster. An ERC grant is special because the recipients are selected from all over Europe; a nation-level grant just doesn’t have the same prestige. We’re being cut off from European networks. It’s like we’re swimming in a smaller and smaller pond on a small island.
I have friends in Switzerland who are in a similar position, because there’s no agreement between Switzerland and the EU to allow them to apply for ERC grants. They can get funding, but it’s only on a national scale. That just doesn’t carry the same weight.
On a practical level, I’m concerned that losing this funding connection to the EU will make it even harder for me or any other principal investigator in the United Kingdom to recruit talent. Like many other principal investigators in this country, I’m already struggling to find postdocs. This grant loss is going to further complicate that search. I currently have two PhD students who are part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Doctoral Network, a training programme administered by the EU. Their project ends this year. Going forwards, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to participate in the network again, and I probably won’t be able to coordinate any MSCA projects. Losing these connections is bad for UK science and for UK researchers’ ability to collaborate internationally.
I don’t think preventing this situation was a high priority for anyone in the UK government. Both the EU and the United Kingdom were playing hardball and scientists were pawns that got moved around. Nobody was interested in solving the problem.
MIRIAM KLEIN-FLÜGGE: ‘The prestige is gone’
Neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, UK.
I got my ERC grant in January to start a new project to investigate non-invasive ultrasound for deep-brain stimulation in humans. In April, I got the letter saying that I could either move to an EU institution or lose my grant. For me, leaving Oxford to keep the grant wasn’t really an option. There aren’t many places in the world that have the resources and the expertise to support the work I want to do.
I applied for an ERC grant because I hoped that the United Kingdom could maintain its connection to Horizon Europe. My confidence in the UK government wasn’t especially high, but I thought they would work something out with the EU.
The ERC grant-application process is labour-intensive. I really hoped I wasn’t doing all of that work in vain. The United Kingdom is a very good place to do science, especially in the field of neuroscience.
EU universities did approach me about 50–50 arrangements, but that would have been disruptive. I can’t be gone half the time.
I’ll be applying for the guaranteed funding from the UKRI. It could be some months before it arrives, but I already have funding from the biomedical research charity Wellcome in London, so I can afford to wait. The UKRI funding lacks the portability of the ERC grant, however. If I ever did feel ready to work in another country, I wouldn’t be able to take my grant with me.
I feel the pain of many people in the United Kingdom. We have many international scientists from all over the place, and we’re being denied access to a big source of funding.
It’s going to work out OK for me: I’ll receive the equivalent amount of funding, it will just be in pounds instead of euros. But the flexibility is gone and the prestige is gone. I don’t even know what my title is. The UKRI funding scheme is being made up as we go along.
In the long term, I can’t see the United Kingdom covering all the ERC money that will be lost. This split is changing the prospects of scientific funding in the future. People might leave UK research institutions because there are more funding opportunities elsewhere, and it could be harder to attract people. Brexit had already made this country feel a little shut off to other people. And now it’s worse.