What do We Lose if We Lose Access to the ERC?

This week I was in Brussels in my capacity as a Scientific Council Member of the European Research Council. One of the roles we are all expected to fulfil from time to time is as observer of the various panels that make decisions on grants. There are 25 panels across three domains (Physical and Engineering Sciences, Life Sciences and Social Sciences and Humanities, always referred to as PE, LS and SH domains), and three stages of grants: Starter, Consolidator and Advanced. Each panel meets twice, first for shortlisting and a few months later for final decision after receipt of referee reports on the full shortlisted grants. Additionally there are separate calls for Proof of Concept grants and now the recently reintroduced Synergy grants. This all represents a huge amount of work involving a large number of experts from right across Europe, supported by a highly professional team of Commission employees.

This week I attended Step 2 (that is the final decision-making stage) of the Advanced Grants, spending time observing three panels from the PE domain and two from SH. Whereas for Starter and Consolidator grant applications, applicants are called for interview at Step 2, this is not the case for Advanced Grants. So what I observed was simply panel discussions. I have now written up my notes and shared them with other Scientific Council members. This Scientific Council oversight is an important part of our role and also allows us to check that we are happy with the instructions panels receive; that we know how the process is working and where it may need some additional tweaks or oversight; and that we are confident that the panels are operating effectively. It also makes it easier for us to discuss any concerns the supporting teams may have. In due course any worries that people have about particular panel members’ contributions will also be considered centrally.

That introduction is to illustrate some of the reasons that I am so concerned about the potential loss of access to funding for UK researchers post-Brexit. There is the obvious loss of money. Easy, some people say, the Government will replace the existing scheme with a set of personal fellowships to be held in the UK. Problem solved. Except that such a programme, welcome though it might be in purely cash terms, would not and could not mimic what the ERC offers. If you sit on an appointment or promotion panel, if the applicant is holding (or possibly, has held) an ERC grant at any level, it is noted with respect. A holder of a straight UK Research Council grant will get a tick for the cash, the proof that the applicant can successfully write a research grant, but the respect afforded – in my experience – is significantly less.

And that is because the competition across the whole of Europe, with a success rate of somewhat better than 10% in a typical round but usually less than 15%, is incredibly stiff (basic statistics on this can be found here). The success rate may be similar for UK Research Councils, the competition is undoubtedly fierce here, but the ERC draws from a much larger pool of applicants and there are significant restrictions imposed on submitting a new proposal if an earlier one is deemed to have been below a certain threshold, thereby pushing up the standard of those who can apply each round. As was said to me by a member of shadow UKRI’s workforce recently, there is huge prestige associated with winning an ERC grant. Nevertheless the UK is a very successful country in winning such grants: its success rate is not the highest of all, but the total number of grants awarded has been for most rounds (although in the last announced round Germany had overtaken the UK). In terms of success rate – as opposed to numbers – Israel and Switzerland, both associated countries, tend to do best. The ERC Executive Agency provides the Scientific Council with meticulous data after each round covering information about gender, country and so on for both applications and success rates at the two steps.

So the ERC schemes provide a highly prestigious scheme in which the UK does well. That in itself would be cause enough to mourn its loss to the UK – and I’m sure many scientists are looking ahead with huge anxiety as our access looks likely to be curtailed by the political process, although personally I’m not giving up hope yet. But, there are other less obvious reasons why I think the ERC process is so striking. I’m not saying panels will always get things right; comparing the apples and pears of different proposals is always going to contain a subjective element. But I am not aware of any UK Research Council that goes to the lengths of scrutiny that the ERC does.

As I said, Scientific Council members drop in on panels – unannounced and often unrecognized as I discovered to my dismay, when a panel member kindly told me I was in the wrong room. I did wonder whether, had I been a man this person would have been so swift to rush to judgement, but I will never know whether this was a crude stereotyping or someone trying to be genuinely helpful. Is there any UK Research Council that expects the same of its Council members? I am sure that UK grant panels now do get mandatory unconscious bias training, but do Chairs get additional wide-ranging briefings as ERC chairs do? I certainly haven’t in the past when serving as a chair in the UK. Is data analysed carefully after every round to see whether gender bias is still present despite the training video? Is there a group that considers all aspects of gender balance (I sit on the ERC’s Gender Balance Working Group) – in panel make up as well as in the statistics of applications and grants; or the geographical distribution of panel members? Or the years post PhD of successful applicants….and so on. How carefully is panel composition scrutinised within the UK? And are people blacklisted if they don’t contribute sufficiently, write their reports on time or otherwise fail to come up to scratch?

It seems to me that the rigorous processes that the ERC has created in its relatively short (10 years old last year) existence are less visible in the UK system. And I’m sure this rigour does help strengthen the assessment process. We have all received referees’ comments that make us furious because of their inaccuracy and (at least perceived) ignorance, but for some UK Research Councils at least it is much harder for a panel member to throw a report that appears to be out of line out of consideration. ERC panel members are able, indeed absolutely expected, to use their own judgement in reaching a conclusion and if that includes throwing out a dodgy report, so be it.

If and when we lose access to the ERC I therefore believe we will lose far more than just the cash, important though that obviously is. I hope the UK scientific leadership, in UKRI and Government, will recognize what is at stake if a deal cannot be reached that permits us to continue to apply for ERC funding. And that is all before we consider the loss of researchers who choose to move to countries where such access is still available, to the further detriment of the science done here. I also know how much the ERC itself values the science done on these shores and their own recognition that our departure from the grant competition will not improve the excellence their funding can deliver, the excellence that sits four-squarely at the core of everything they do.

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18 Responses to What do We Lose if We Lose Access to the ERC?

  1. Steve Moss says:

    Loss of ERC funding would indeed be a major blow for UK science. But the scientific isolation, exclusion from the scientific top table, would be equally hard to bear. Even before our formal exit from the EU the impact of Brexit is already apparent. We recently advertised a number of post-doc positions (5 years, good salaries, Wellcome Trust Investigator Award), and received not a single application from an EU27 country. I’ve been at UCL for almost 30 years, and have advertised numerous posts over that time, but this is the first time I’ve experienced a total lack of interest from mainland Europe. Apologies for the digression from the topic of your post, but we’re feeling the damage from Brexit before it’s even happened.

    • You are absolutely right about the many dire consequences of potential Brexit. Interestingly I’m told Cambridge is not -yet- seeing a substantial drop of EU27 applicants for postdocs etc. This post is, however, meant to address a very specific concern about the ERC because I am nervous about those who seem to think it is a simple problem to solve, which may include those who need to find the solution.

  2. Magnus Pedersen says:

    Since Brexit I have advertised several PhD and postdoctoral positions but I have automatically discarded candidates from the UK, even if they are superb. Why? Because most of the UK citizens decided to become isolated by voting against the EU. It was a selfishness-driven decision based on lies and the UK government could have used any excuse to step back. They could have found other constructive options, but they did not want to. OK, I respect the final decision, but the UK will need to understand the consequences of shooting themselves in their feet. Besides, the behavior of the UK government during the last years (even several years before Brexit) has been annoying as they have never respected the spirit of the EU. Taking all this into account all staff members in our department decided that the UK does not deserve any minute of our work time. Our students will travel to many places in the EU and some to USA and Japan, but the UK will be automatically excluded for collaboration, short visits, conferences or courses. Nearly a year ago our department decided to exclude UK universities / industry partners for H2020 proposals: We will only select Europeans. We are also advertising two tenure-track positions in a few months. We will accept applications from the UK but they will be automatically trashed because it would be against all logic to select researchers from a country that does not respect the EU. An the end this will be translated into a stronger EU and a weaker UK. I fully understand that our response to the UK is unpleasant, but isn’t this what they voted for? I know that there are nice people there, including excellent, competent and honest researchers. However, a democratic government represents the interests of the electorate, and at present the UK government is not interested at all in establishing a constructive relationship with the EU.

    • I find this comment distressing and appalling in equal measure. Is such behaviour even legal, since you are excluding applicants on the grounds of race alone? By implication I assume you think that myself, and the two other UK members of the ERC Scientific Council should have been thrown off after the Brexit vote and you discount the work we do in service. Likewise all the UK Panel Members who work so hard to make the ERC a continuing success. If you knew anything about the UK, you would know that the University population was massively Remain (in my own city of Cambridge the Remain vote was over 70%) so no, this isn’t what we voted for and the press is making it clear that many (one can argue over how many) who did vote Leave are no realising the implications and would like to change their minds.

    • Stephen Curry says:

      Completely understand Dr Pedersen’s frustration with the U.K. but the actions he proposes are illegal under EU law. The U.K. is still a member. I hope he will reconsider.

    • Simon Dixon says:

      U OK Hun?

      • Simon Dixon says:

        Just to provide some context here, “u ok hun?” is a social media meme. It’s used as an ironic response to attention seeking posts, commonly which have only a tenuous grasp of the salient facts and/or display a complete over-reaction to events.

        I felt Dr Pedersen’s comment was so ridiculous that this was an appropriate response to their post.

        Admittedly, it is probably not reasonable to expect all readers of an academic blog to be versed in social media memes! I apologise to anyone who was offended by my flippancy. This is a serious issue and it is served neither by Dr Pedersen’s disproportionate reaction, or my sarcasm.

        • Thanks for clarification. Not a meme I’ve encountered and I certainly completely misinterpreted it and took it as addressed to me! I guess that’s because casual sexism seems so common, as I discussed previously here..

    • Cahir O'Kane says:

      I expect that any recent UK applicants to your lab will now be able to take an anti-discrimination case against you and your institution. I urge you to self-report yourself to your institution’s HR section, and request a program of equality and anti-discrimination training, before you do any more damage to the careers of innocent applicants, your own research, and the reputation of yourself and your institution. The consequences of Brexit are awful enough already, without being aggravated by actions that have no legal or ethical basis. End of comment: I won’t escalate further online.

      P.S. I am an Irish citizen resident in UK, and anti-Brexit with every bone of my body.

    • Larissa Slaney says:

      As much as I can understand Dr Pedersen’s frustration with Brexit and the UK government’s attitude, I find his stance completely unacceptable and irresponsible. To basically want to ‘punish’ UK scientists for Brexit is neither just nor logical nor legal. I am an EU citizen who has lived in the UK for almost 25 years. I am also a scientist working at a UK University. I was not allowed to vote in the Brexit referendum and if I had been I would have voted ‘Remain’ – as did the majority of UK scientists. We have always treasured international research collaborations and are doing our best to ensure their continuation despite Brexit. In the present climate it is important to build bridges, not to tear down even more!

  3. Ehmke Pohl says:

    So much concerns by British scientist about the loss of funding and the loss of temporary migrant workers (aka postdocs and PhD students), yet, so little concern about the lives of 4.5 million EU citiziens and their lives in limbo. The UK has lost much more than a few dozen ERC grants and access to cheap migrant workers.

  4. Sexism and racism on the same day here must be a record for me.

    Ehmke – no that is an unreasonable deduction from what I write, and is totally at odds with what most of us in academia feel. If I wrote all the things that depressed me about Brexit in a post it would become a book. I would say the vast majority of UK academics are deeply troubled by the cavalier attitude of the Government to EU citizens. The change in language to regarding EU researchers and others as ‘temporary migrants’ is repugnant. I know a great number of EU citizens working here and count them amongst my friends. I hate the stress and anxiety they are being put under by the ditherings and posturings at the top. But that was not the thrust of this single issue post which had other aims.

    • Vera Kempe says:

      I appreciate the thoughtful analysis in your post and yet many if us EU-citizens, including those in academia, are deeply distressed not just by the uncertainty imposed by the UK government but also by the inaction of our British friends and colleagues. The loss of funding and collaboration seems far more on people’s minds then our impending loss of rights. Because, no, we ‘won’t be ok’ under any of the proposals. Right to vote in local elections, right to bring in elderly parents, right to return after prolonged absence – all gone even under the rosiest of scenarios. Hard not to be bitter.

      • Toby Cubitt says:

        I don’t think “mainly shoulder shrugging” is a fair characterisation of the views of the majority UK academics. I can only give anecdotal evidence, but all the academic colleagues whose opinions I know view the potential loss of EU colleagues, talent and collaboration as one of the biggest negatives in a long list of negatives inflicted on us by Brexit. I know no one who isn’t either appalled or in a state of disbelief about the uncertainty inflicted on EU colleagues and their families. (The disbelief isn’t always helpful. Many colleagues find it hard to believe the UK will really be stupid enough to make the UK unattractive to EU citizens post-Brexit. I can only hope they’re right. The signs don’t look too promising at the moment.)

        I’m also seeing strong messages of support and even some action at the university level. In the wake of Brexit, my university (UCL) has made £10,000 interest-free loans available to employees to pay for external legal advice on immigration issues, including immigration and residency advice for EU citizens, in addition to the existing internal immigration and visa support services. Probably a more effective initiative, both symbolically and practically, than any amount of voicing of support by individuals (though that’s obviously important too). A number of universities and learned societies are sending out regular email updates on Brexit developments and what they’re doing to advocate for and reduce the impact on EU researchers and staff in the current climate of uncertainty, as well as in the post-Brexit fallout.

        Loss of access to EU funding is not disconnected from this. It’s not just about the money. EU research funding coupled with freedom of movement have been one of best mechanisms for fostering collaboration with and easy mobility between EU research groups. Being isolated and cut off from that is far more painful than the loss of funding per se.

        Highlighting on social media the atrocious immigration and extradition stories that some EU citizens have already (illegally) been afflicted by; flagging the negative impact of the current immigration discourse on academia, industry and individuals whenever there’s an opportunity in governmemt and academic policy discussion fora; participating in anti-Brexit demonstrations and demonstrations in support of the contribution of EU (and other non-UK) citizens in the UK; many of us are doing all of these things. There’s always more one could do (suggestions welcome!). But there’s also a limit to how much difference any one individual can make.

        That’s why initiatives like Scientists for EU are so important. They create a collective voice that seems a little less like shouting against the wind, which one rapidly feels as an individual.

        • Steve Moss says:

          I found UCL very helpful on Brexit issues. As a Brit with an EU spouse, they provided support in her application for PR – her first application was rejected, despite having lived in the UK for 27 years, had two kids here, paid taxes every year – and she got it second time round. As a PS, my own application for French citizenship is almost done, passport in the next couple of months.

  5. Ehmke Pohl says:

    I apologise for my unreasonable commments, but I can only echo Vera’s reply while there is only occasional vile abuse there is mainly shoulder shrugging. I am also sorry that you feel that the term ‘temporray migrant worker’ is repugnant – it’s a term used every day in the UK media for a wide range of EU citizien who come to the UK for work. There is no principle difference between somebody coming for three months to work in agriculture or in the lab, or a highly qualified researcher who works for years at a University or research institute. We will all loose fundamental rights, so no, we won’t be ok under any of the UK proposals.

    And, yes it’s also more than 1 million UK citizen in the EU, and what has been described by Magnus above can only be seen as either illegal or satirical.

  6. Just as Toby describes at UCL, Cambridge has been actively doing what it can to support our many students and employees who are so badly affected, with a dedicated webpage highlighted on the front page of the University website. For instance I understand the University has helped around 500 staff gain Permanent Residence cards. I am a member of the University’s EU Advisory Group and there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes. It is frustrating how little we can do, even collectively let alone individually, to support individuals or change what is going on.

  7. Dear Athene,
    I voted remain like the vast majority of other scientists and academics. A very large proportion of people I meet in other walks of life however voted Leave. They form an amalgam of either deep worries over UK sovereignty or fear over their job security be they decorators, plumbers, electricians etc. They greatly respect science and they would greatly respect the ERC I feel sure.
    I see no waivering over the strength of their views.
    All best wishes,
    John

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