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UK winners of EU grants given two-month ultimatum


ERC tells grantees they must move their grant to an EU institution or lose funding

UK researchers awarded some Horizon Europe grants have been given two months to move their projects to a European Union institution or risk having their funding cut, Research Professional News understands.

Political disputes have held up approval of UK association to the €95.5 billion (£80.5bn) R&D programme. While it remains incomplete, UK-based researchers are ineligible to receive any funding they win, though the UK has said it would cover the costs.

On 8 April, a number of UK-based grant winners reported receiving a message from the European Research Council telling them they would be “granted the possibility to ensure the eligibility of their proposal by transferring it to a new, eligible legal entity” in the EU.

Grant winners are being asked to inform the ERC of their intention “as soon as possible”. In addition, they are asked to provide a commitment letter signed by their new host institution “as soon as possible but no later than within two months of receiving this letter”.

The letter adds that the grant preparation “can only start” after the funder has received the new host institution commitment letter.

“If we do not hear from you within two months of receiving this communication, or we have not received the new commitment letter by that time, you will be considered to have declined this possibility, which will result in the rejection of your proposal.”

‘It’s just not feasible’

Caroline Rusterholz, a Wellcome Trust research fellow at the University of Cambridge, who was awarded an ERC starting grant in January for her project on race and sexual and reproductive health charities in post-war Britain, told Research Professional News she was “extremely disappointed”.

“I can’t just move countries in two months. My husband has a stable job in London and I have two children; one is six months old and the other is in nursery. I don’t even see how researchers without a family could uproot their lives like this. It’s so disrespectful giving us two months to find a new position. It’s just not feasible.”

She added: “Coming from Switzerland, where Horizon Europe has already been cancelled, I have seen the damage that has been done to academic life. So, seeing the UK getting into exactly the same situation is very disappointing.”

The government has promised to underwrite successful EU grants for a number of calls via the national research funder UK Research and Innovation in the event the UK does not associate.

However, Rusterholz said that “even if UKRI steps in, the prestige of ERC will be lost. The government should do whatever they can to try and prevent this”.

A spokesperson for the ERC has confirmed that the ERC executive agency “has sent these letters to the successful UK-based applicants for the Starting, Consolidator and Advanced Grants giving them two months to decide whether they move to an eligible host institution or give up the grant”.

“The agency will be ready to extend this time in exceptional, justified cases,” they added.

“This is an expected development since the ERC has already explained in the past that the successful applicants based in a country in the process of associating to Horizon Europe will be treated as based in an associated country only if the relevant Horizon Europe association agreement applies by the time of the signature of the grant agreement.

“The indicative dates for signature of these grant agreements are approaching, so the ERC must act in order to be in a position to potentially offer funding to the researchers put initially on the reserve lists, and to have enough time to prepare and sign grants until the end of 2022, which is the legal deadline for this round funding.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told Research Professional News that the “EU’s delays to formalising the UK’s association to Horizon Europe have led to uncertainty for researchers, businesses and innovators based in the UK, and have been detrimentally affecting important collaborations between the UK and European partners”.

“To provide reassurance, the government has guaranteed funding for eligible, successful applicants to Horizon Europe who are expected to sign grant agreements by December 2022 and who have been unable to sign grant agreements with the EU. This will include the 2021 ERC Starting Grant call.”

A spokesperson for the national funding agency, UK Research and Innovation, which is administering the UK guarantee, said: “We sympathise with researchers who receive this message from the European Research Council, but can reassure them that the Horizon Europe guarantee funding provided by BEIS via UKRI will allow them to receive the full value of their funding and continue their research in the UK.

“Awardees do not need to move abroad to an EU Member State or to an Associated Country to Horizon Europe to access this funding. There is detailed guidance on our website at www.ukri.org/HorizonEU.”