UK scientists lose European funding in row over Brexit deal

At least 115 UK-based scientists are to lose prestigious European grants and 19 are leaving Britain as a result of a furious row between London and Brussels over participation in a continent-wide research program after Brexit.

A provisional deal for the UK to remain part of Horizon Europe has been thrown into doubt by Boris Johnson’s threat to tear up the protocol deal on Northern Ireland which he struck with the EU in 2019.

The EU is refusing to ratify Britain’s associate membership of the 95bn euro scheme, which funds projects from particle physics to vaccine research.

Earlier this month, almost 150 UK-based scientists who had secured promises of funding for cutting-edge research were told that they must declare their intention to transfer to institutions within the EU by Wednesday this week or lose their grants.

And the European Research Council has now revealed that 19 of them have informed it of their intention to leave the UK in order to keep their funding, with another 12 cases yet to be resolved.

An ERC spokesperson told Research Professional News: “The preparation of 115 ERC grants offered to UK based researchers will be terminated now that the 29 June deadline has passed.”

Under a plan drawn up as part of EU withdrawal, the UK would pay £15bn as an associate member into the scheme over seven years while its scientists could still bid for Horizon funding.

Grants were awarded over the past year on this basis, but contracts could not be signed until the UK was formally awarded associate status, which is currently being held in what appears to be a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol row.

Mr Johnson has infuriated Brussels by tabling legislation which would allow Britain unilaterally to override delicate arrangements painstakingly negotiated over a period of many months with the aim of keeping the Irish border open after Brexit. The PM complains that his decision to draw a customs border down the Irish Sea has disrupted trade between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

Among research projects understood to be affected are a star-mapping study being led from Cambridge University and work at Liverpool University on plasma.

Researchers losing out on ERC money are eligible to apply for replacement grants underwritten by the UK government.

But UK Research and Innovation is yet to confirm details of where any support will go.

Sir Adrian Smith, the president of the Royal Society, told The Independent: “This is the reality of continued uncertainty.

“While the UK government’s underwrite will support these scientists to continue their research, the best outcome for both UK and European science is full association to Horizon Europe.

“The priority must be resolving this political impasse so that the valuable collaborations and relationships that have been built up over decades are not lost.”

Grant-winner Giovanni Rosotti, of the University of Leicester, told RPN earlier this month that he was planning to move to a new host institution in Milan.

“It’s not the only factor, but not losing access to ERC funds was a big reason behind my decision to move back to Europe,” he said.

“I decided to move because the ERC is not simply a large amount of funding, it’s also very well-known and therefore it attracts the best talent from all over the world when hiring students and post-docs, which I’ll need to do in the coming months.

“There’s no guarantee that the alternative replacement scheme from the UK government will do the same. Also, without access to the ERC, the funding for science in the UK will massively decrease, and so betting long-term on the UK didn’t sound a wise choice to me.”

There was no immediate response from the Business Department or UKRI to The Independent‘s request for comment.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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