ERC grants ‘could be exit strategy’ for researchers leaving UK

Uncertainty around UK’s future in EU research, plus shortage of domestic funding beyond Oxbridge, drove ERC grant holder to swap Southampton for Bergen

March 10, 2022
Brexit transition poster
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UK-based researchers might start using prestigious European Research Council grants as “an exit strategy” to find jobs in continental Europe, as uncertainty over the UK’s future in European Union research continues, according to one grant winner who left Britain in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Romania-born political scientist Adriana Bunea, who won a five-year ERC starting grant in 2018, left the University of Southampton to take up a post at the University of Bergen the following year.

Dr Bunea offers an example of what senior figures in the UK sector fear could become a trend if the nation does not join the European Union’s Horizon Europe research programme: leading researchers wishing to apply for ERC grants awarded under the programme, sometimes described as “the Champions League of research” or “mini Nobel prizes”, exiting the UK for institutions in EU member states or associated nations.

Talks on the UK’s association to Horizon Europe have stalled as the European Commission ties the issue to a resolution of Brussels-Westminster disagreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Dr Bunea said her move from Southampton, taking her ERC grant to study the use of stakeholder consultations in the EU, was prompted by the fact that she had made “countless applications for UK funding” without success.

Either because she was “not Oxbridge”, or “not networked enough, or maybe my topic was not relevant for the UK context, I was not getting any [UK] funding”, she added.

That meant “all of my professional prospects [were] going to depend on getting European funding, in particular an ERC project”, she continued.

So staying in the UK became “a big gamble” in terms of future EU funding and “it was a level of uncertainty I didn’t want to have at that [early] point in my career”, Dr Bunea said.

But if the UK does join Horizon Europe, could it turn out she jumped too soon?

Dr Bunea highlighted broader factors: in Norway, there is matched funding from the government for institutions where ERC grant winners are based and a “public good” culture within research, distinct from the “more individualistic pursuit of academic fame” in the UK, she argued. Plus, the Norwegian government, thanks to its oil wealth, was “pouring money into public education”, and also “treats higher education as a public investment”.

The move to Norway was thus “the right decision for me as a person, as a professional and us as a family”, said Dr Bunea, whose husband is an academic who has also moved to Bergen after leaving the UK.

Factors such as cuts to pensions are also reducing the attractiveness of the UK for researchers, she said. But ERC grant holders will be attractive to continental European institutions and their grants might open the door to prestigious professorships in nations such as Germany, she continued.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if UK [based] academics actually start to use their ERCs as an exit strategy; to think about an ERC application as not only about getting a grant, but about getting a job somewhere else,” Dr Bunea said.

However, she stressed that she felt great sorrow at leaving the UK – she and her husband “cried after the [EU] referendum result. It was an excruciatingly painful experience.”

She added that “if Brexit didn’t happen, my husband and I would have never left the UK”, but it had been pivotal to have the certainty of “knowing that we can always have access to European funding and collaborations, to further our professional development”.

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Reader's comments (2)

Possibly not a good example. The academic in question is still a national of an EU member country. She also gained her grant in 2018. Try accessing an EU grant website now - the UK isn't on the drop down list any more.
A whole article just based on ONE example??? She may be representative of a general trend. Or not. Who knows?