Go back

Star researchers make plans to leave UK

ERC grantees say lack of clarity over Brexit is forcing them out

Leading researchers on multimillion-euro grants from the European Union are stepping up plans to leave the UK, as the chances of a no-deal Brexit rise.

Several researchers with prestigious grants from the European Research Council (ERC) are now in discussions with universities elsewhere in the EU about moving. Some are in the process of leaving, while others have already departed.

Uncertainty over Brexit appears to be weighing heavily on some of the UK’s brightest minds; exit day is just weeks away but no way forward has been found after the UK parliament rejected the government’s withdrawal agreement with the EU last month.

One grant holder in the south of England, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is in the process of moving their research team and their family back to their home country in the EU because of Brexit.

“I’ve been with my institution for 14 years so I’ve settled down here and bought a house. The whole process has been extremely upsetting,” they said. “I bought into this dream that the EU is my home and now that the UK is leaving it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

The UK government has said it will underwrite all successful ERC grant bids submitted before the Brexit deadline of 29 March, in effect paying any money that the EU will no longer supply. But more than one ERC grantee told Research Fortnight that they were unclear about what would happen in practice to their grant in the event of no deal, and that they had sought guidance from the ERC and the government but not received any clarity.

The ERC declined to comment on what advice it was offering to UK-based grantees.

Universities on the continent are alert to the possible availability of senior staff who would bring their own funding with them.

A grantee based in the north of England said he was being approached once or twice a month by institutions elsewhere in the EU asking if he wants to move. So far, he has not taken up these offers. But he said a no-deal Brexit would be “disastrous for UK universities” and if that happens he will have to move abroad.

Another researcher who wished to remain anonymous said universities in the EU had approached her too. “I’m starting what would otherwise be the most exciting thing that’s happened in my career so far. And now I’m thinking that it may not happen if I stay here. It’s upsetting and unsettling,” she said.

“I have to think not only about myself but also the people I get to make new jobs for and be responsible for developing their careers.”

Many grantees employ and train younger investigators, but Brexit is slowing this process down.

“I am not recruiting and hiring at full force because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said one ERC grant holder who is sitting on an offer from an EU institution. “It’s a very worrying time to start hiring people and I’m wondering if I should wait and see what happens.”

Other researchers are looking for slightly less drastic options than emigrating.

Malcolm Levitt, a professor in physical chemistry at the University of Southampton and an ERC grant holder, has approached one institution in Denmark and one in France about the possibility of spending 50 per cent of his time outside the UK. Under current rules, researchers based anywhere in the world can apply for ERC funding, provided that they are able to spend at least half of the duration of their project in an EU country or a country signed up to the EU’s Horizon 2020 scheme that funds the council.

An exodus of ERC grant holders would send shockwaves across the UK research base.

Between the start of Horizon 2020 in 2014 and October 2018, the UK has received €1.48 billion (£1.3bn) in ERC funding. The council’s 2019 budget is more than €2bn, with the first winners due to be informed in April, just days after Brexit day.

The worries expressed by ERC grantees appear to confirm fears raised earlier this month by leading researchers and learned societies about a possible brain drain. The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Science Board, the council’s main scientific advisory committee, said efforts need to be made to retain these researchers.

“Without them UK science will potentially underperform in or withdraw from science areas, and not be able to maintain its position as a global leader in science,” the science board said in evidence submitted to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into no-deal preparedness.

The Royal Society said in its submission that the government must rapidly make money available to deliver alternative funding in a no-deal scenario. But ERC grantees were sceptical about the possibility of a future homegrown replacement for ERC funding, which the government is currently consulting on.

If the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, the UK would be downgraded to a ‘third country’ in EU schemes, and researchers would not be able to apply to the ERC to carry out projects in the UK.

A biologist on an ERC grant who is considering relocating their lab to another European country said: “The prestige that comes with an ERC grant could not matched by any national scheme.”

A senior biochemist who is moving to Germany partly due to Brexit said that they had been told nothing about a possible replacement programme. “I think the UK government is asking people to put their research careers on the line,” the researcher said.

“I hope that the UK government can appreciate that many would, certainly I would, hesitate to put my research career on the line without specific and detailed information about the future of funding in the UK.”

But a social scientist on an advanced grant at the University of Oxford who has no plans to move was reassured: “The government has made an explicit pledge [to underwrite funding] and the university will try to hold it to that pledge.”

Meanwhile, in a report released on 12 February, the House of Lords Home Affairs Sub-Committee warned of the risk of losing access to Horizon 2020 funding. Committee chairman Michael Hastings Jay said: “We need to know how, in a no-deal scenario, the Horizon 2020 underwrite guarantee would work in practice, and how the government would replace major funding schemes not covered by this guarantee.”

A government spokesperson said: “Science recognises no borders and the UK has a proud record of welcoming the world’s leading scientists and researchers to work and study here. This will not change when we leave the EU…We are investing record levels in R&D and we are committed to seeking an ambitious future relationship on science and innovation with our EU partners.”

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version also appeared in Research Europe