Swiss and UK grantees left waiting as ERC announces awards

Success rate for prestigious starter grants drops below 10 per cent

January 10, 2022
Source: iStock

The 2021 round of the European Research Council’s starting grants is like no other: almost a fifth of the world-class grantees are currently ineligible for their hard-won funding. 

Those based at Swiss institutions, who were eligible to apply but have been made ineligible by a breakdown in Swiss-European Union relations, must uproot themselves or turn to a national scheme instead.  

A similar predicament faces their UK-based colleagues, although they could get EU funding if the European Commission finally approves the country’s association to Horizon Europe in time for their grant agreements to be signed. 

It has been known for months that UK and Swiss awards would come with strings, which may partly explain the 25 per cent fall in UK host institutions compared with the 2020 round, with Swiss hosts dropping by 17 per cent. 

Both the Swiss and UK governments have promised their winners the equivalent of the €1.5 million (£1.25 million) prizes in national funds, but some are still considering relocation to keep their EU backing. 

“I am absolutely delighted about the grant and very excited to have the opportunity to carry out my project on assisted dying in European writing and visual culture”, said Anna Elsner, an ERC grantee based at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. 

“A decision has not been made from my side, but I am currently in touch with EU institutions interested in hosting my project,” said Dr Elsner, an assistant professor of French studies, adding that Swiss exclusion from Horizon Europe was “unsettling for the research projects themselves but also for the lives connected to them”. 

Between 2020 and 2021 rounds the typically high-performing UK has gone from hosting 62 to 46 starting grants, with Swiss hosts falling from 34 to 28. The number of UK nationals winning starting grants fell from 26 to 12, while Swiss winners surprisingly rose from 10 to 11. 

As in the 2020 round, Germany came out on top both in terms of host institution (72) and researcher nationality, hosting (67). 

With an extra 794 submissions but €58 million less to share out, the overall starting grant success rate slipped below the psychological 10 per cent barrier: 9.8 versus 13.3 in 2020. 

Despite these dampeners, the funder still has much to celebrate, having attracted 3,272 applications and cementing its world-leading status by drawing 13 grantees to the EU from the US. 

“I am thrilled to see these new ERC starting grant winners ready to cut new ground and set up their own teams,” said ERC president Maria Leptin. “Some of them will be coming back from overseas, thanks to the ERC grants, to do science in Europe.” 

UK and Swiss exclusion nonetheless stands as a self-defeating departure for the EU, with the bloc’s funding helping to nurture some of those now facing difficult decisions.

“I have studied and worked for 15 years in the UK and France prior to moving to Switzerland, benefiting from European and UK funding schemes along the way,” said Dr Elsner. “I have always considered myself a European citizen and Switzerland being excluded from Horizon Europe is a blow in the face.”

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