This blog was kindly contributed by Marco Cavallaro, a doctoral student at the University of Lugano in Switzerland.
In the second year of the Horizon Europe programme, the United Kingdom (UK) is still not formally associated with the largest research and innovation funding programme in the world. Although they remain eligible to apply, UK-based researchers and institutions cannot currently sign grant agreements for Horizon Europe projects and receive funding from the European Commission. The commitment of the UK Government to fund all UK-based participants reassures the researchers concerned, but adds layers of bureaucracy and resources that could be avoided if the UK was associated with the programme, just like Norway, Israel and Turkey.
In sum, Brexit continues to jeopardise the position of the UK and its academic institutions as research destinations. This is notably reflected in the highly competitive European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Postdoctoral Fellowships. Both Horizon Europe funding schemes attract more than 10,000 ambitious applicants every year at the postdoctoral level.
Awarded by what is called the Champions League of European research, the ERC Starting Grants have a massive impact on symbolic reputation, be it at the researcher, institutional and even country levels. Before the Brexit vote, the UK was always the country with the highest share of applications. As shown in the chart below, this share kept decreasing after the vote. Since 2018, Germany is by far the preferred destination for applicants.
In the MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships, where mobility to another country is required, the share of applications to UK-based institutions also followed a downward trend until 2020. For the first time since the Brexit vote, this share increased in the 2021 call. This may be due, in part, to the exclusion of Swiss institutions from the call.
Nonetheless, despite Brexit-induced uncertainties, the UK remains the applicants’ preferred destination. This shows how top-ranked UK institutions, Oxbridge on the front line, continue to be attractive destinations for researchers.
The success rates of the UK in both schemes follow the same tendencies as the overall success rates. Luckily, Brexit did not seem to influence the evaluators’ judgements.
However, successful applicants who chose a UK-based host institution (46 in the ERC Starting Grants and 228 in the MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships) are uncertain if their funding will come from the European Commission or the UK’s government.
The case of Switzerland shows what can be expected if no deal is reached and the UK becomes a ‘third country’ not associated with the programme.
In May 2021, the European Commission relegated Switzerland to third-country status after the Swiss government unilaterally ended bilateral talks on an umbrella agreement regulating bilateral relations. Swiss-based researchers and institutions lost their eligibility to receive European Union (EU) funding for collaborative projects, along with their right to participate in prestigious individual grants awarded by the ERC and the MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships.
The European Commission invited successful ERC Starting Grant applicants who applied with a Swiss-host institution before the country’ exclusion to move to an institution in an EU or associated country, although the Swiss government was committed to funding them. This led other national funding agencies to ‘hunt’ for successful Swiss-based applicants who might decide to move to another country.
To fund successful ERC applicants who want to stay and attract researchers willing to join a Swiss university, the Swiss Government decided to provide national funding and launch a series of backup schemes with comparable requirements and evaluation criteria to the ERC and MSCA calls.
Such solutions can also be envisaged by the UK’s Government. However, compared to the full association, nationally funded backup schemes remain suboptimal.
On the one hand, national funding authorities must allocate extensive resources for organising the calls, evaluation, funding and monitoring procedures. On the other hand, such backup schemes do not carry the same prestige as ERC and MSCA grants. The value attached to these grants in terms of status and career perspectives at the European and global levels is hardly replicable in national funding schemes.
The number of applications with UK universities despite Brexit, along with the interest raised by the Swiss-funded Postdoctoral Fellowships, demonstrate the attractiveness of both countries’ higher education systems to European and non-European researchers. Excluding UK and Swiss universities from ERC and MSCA funding schemes can only damage the desirability and value attached to these grants. Moreover, Swiss and UK participation would bring extra funding to Horizon Europe’s budget and increase the size and visibility of the programme.
EU, UK and Swiss political actors must realise the damaging effects of such an unnecessary climate of uncertainty over the mid- to long term. The European research community is doing its part with the Stick to Science campaign, which promotes the UK and Swiss association to Horizon Europe and collected more than five thousand signatures. Using access to Horizon Europe as a ‘bargaining chip’ in non-related political disputes can only weaken Europe’s position in the global research and innovation landscape and put at risk the achievement of EU’s goals through research and innovation.
A year has passed since the publication of the first Horizon Europe calls. How many more years do we want to interfere with the free flow of researchers and knowledge across the continent and prevent European research from unleashing its full potential?