U.K. and Swiss researchers left in limbo with European grants | Science

For most of the 397 early-career scientists who learned this week that they had received €1.5 million grants, the first to be awarded under the European Union’s mammoth new funding program Horizon Europe, it was an ecstatic moment, a chance to launch a lab. But for 28 winners based in Switzerland and 46 in the United Kingdom—two countries whose attempts to join the €95.5 billion research funding scheme have been thwarted by broader diplomatic disputes—it has been bittersweet. To use the awards, the Swiss researchers need to leave the country, whereas U.K. winners remain in limbo, uncertain whether the same condition applies to them.

“It’s a loss for everybody, because sooner or later the outcomes of these projects are impacting on society,” says Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of Science Europe, a Brussels-based organization that represents European funding agencies.

In June 2021, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, excluded Switzerland from Horizon Europe after the country pulled out of talks about an overarching treaty with Europe that would replace more than 120 outdated bilateral deals on trade, immigration, and other issues. The Commission is using Swiss membership in Horizon Europe as a “bargaining chip” in the broader talks, says Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association.

Switzerland-based researchers who won the early-career grants, which are awarded by the European Research Council (ERC), have been told they can only receive the funding if they move to an institution in the European Union or a non-EU country that has already joined Horizon Europe, including Israel, Turkey, and Norway. “This would mean relocating myself and finding the most suitable institution in another country, and then starting from scratch,” says climate historian Heli Huhtamaa at the University of Bern, who was awarded an ERC starting grant to study how past volcanic eruptions influenced climate and human societies.

The Swiss government launched a backup system for funding successful applicants who want to stay, so Huhtamaa, like most of the Switzerland-based awardees contacted by Science, says she will forgo the ERC award and collect an equivalent award from the national scheme. The national grants can’t be transferred to other countries, however, which may limit researchers’ mobility.

What’s more, national funding schemes aren’t as competitive as their European counterpart, so the awards don’t carry the same prestige, says economist Elliott Ash at ETH Zurich, who was awarded an ERC starting grant to develop artificial intelligence tools to analyze the behavior of judges. “An ERC grant opens doors; a national grant won’t be able to do that,” he says.

Alternate funding schemes must be an emergency measure rather than a permanent solution—or Switzerland-based researchers risk becoming isolated from their EU partners and losing valuable research ties, adds Marcel Tanner, president of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. An earlier ban from EU research funding in 2014—a response to Swiss restrictions on immigration—led to a sharp decrease in the number of international collaborations led by Swiss universities, according to a recent study. They recovered only after Switzerland regained full access to European research funding in 2017.

Left in limbo

On 10 January, the European Research Council announced €619 million in grants to 397 early-career researchers across 22 countries. But 74 grantees based in the United Kingdom and Switzerland are restricted from using the money because of broader diplomatic disputes.

Chart of number of European Research Council grantees by country
Graphic: K. Franklin/Science; Data: European Research Council

A spokesperson for the Swiss government says joining Horizon Europe remains Switzerland’s “declared goal.” But Stefanie Walter, an expert in political science and international relations at the University of Zurich, says the impasse could last for years, which will be “really bad” for science.

U.K.-led international projects also suffered a severe blow after the nation’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union, the same study found. Qualms about Brexit may have reduced the appeal of engaging in partnerships with U.K. researchers, says Benedetto Lepori, an expert in higher education at the University of Lugano, who led the research. “Uncertainty creates a lot of problems,” he says.

Now, 2 years after Brexit was formally executed, ongoing diplomatic wrangles are creating a new barrier. Although the United Kingdom reached a deal in December 2020 to join Horizon Europe, the Commission has delayed approval over a separate dispute about border issues with Northern Ireland. ERC warned U.K.-based starting-grant winners that, like the Swiss awardees, they may have to move elsewhere if the Horizon Europe deal fails.

If the negotiations fail, U.K. science minister George Freeman announced in November 2021, the government would guarantee backup funding for ERC starting-grant winners who decide to stay in the country, as well as a wider alternative funding scheme—a “bold and ambitious offer that delivers many of the benefits of Horizon association,” he said.

For now, U.K.-based awardees, who are expected to sign their grant contracts by April, don’t know whether their funding will come from ERC or from the U.K. government. Seven U.K.-based winners contacted by Science said they don’t plan to relocate their lab to the European Union in the short term, but some said they may move in the future if the uncertainty drags on. “If an institution told me, ‘You can keep this funding if you come to Europe,’ I would very seriously start considering that possibility,” says Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a physicist at the University of Manchester whose ERC starting grant is to develop nanoscale sieves to separate molecules.

Many U.K. researchers are frustrated: They must wait while other ERC winners can begin to collect their money and get started buying equipment and hiring graduate students. “It feels like our careers and our ability to do the kind of research that we’re hoping to do is at the mercy of the post-Brexit climate, and it’s not something that we can have any control over,” says David Doyle, a social psychologist at the University of Exeter who has an ERC grant to study the psychosocial outcomes of people undergoing hormone therapy to match their gender identity.

The national funding scheme that Freeman promised is small comfort, some say. The idea that it could match the collaborative opportunities of Horizon Europe is “pie-in-the-sky nonsense,” says James Wilsdon, a science policy researcher at the University of Sheffield. “You can’t replicate those unilaterally as a single nation,” he says.

Kieron Flanagan, who studies science and technology policy at Manchester, is optimistic for a breakthrough on the U.K.-European impasse on research, but says it may take years. “The question is, how much damage gets done in the meantime?”