Swiss and UK fellows wait as ERC announces awards


The European Research Council’s 2021 seed grant cycle is unlike any other: almost a fifth of world-class fellows are currently ineligible for their hard-earned funding.

Those based in Swiss institutions, which were eligible but were rendered ineligible by a breakdown in Swiss-European Union relations, must uproot themselves or turn to a national regime instead.

Their UK-based colleagues face a similar situation, although they can secure EU funding if the European Commission finally approves the country’s association with Horizon Europe in time for their grant agreements to be signed. .

It has been known for months that UK and Swiss rewards would come with strings attached, which could partly explain the 25% drop for UK host institutions from the 2020 cycle, with Swiss hosts dropping 17%.

The Swiss and UK governments have promised their winners the prize equivalent of 1.5million euros (£ 1.25million) in domestic funds, but some are still considering relocations to maintain their support for the EU.

“I am absolutely thrilled with the grant and very happy to have the opportunity to complete my project on assisted dying in European writing and visual culture,” said Anna Elsner, an ERC fellow based at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

“A decision has not been taken on my side, but I am currently in contact with European institutions interested in hosting my project,” said Dr Elsner, assistant professor of French studies, adding that the exclusion of the Horizon Europe Switzerland was “unsettling for the research projects themselves but also for the lives that are linked to them”.

Between 2021 and 2020, the generally top performing UK grew from 62 to 46 starting scholarships, with Swiss hosts dropping from 34 to 28. The number of UK nationals having obtained starting scholarships increased from 26 to 12 , while the Swiss winners went from 10 to 11.

As in the 2020 cycle, Germany came out on top both in terms of host institution and nationality of researchers, hosting 72 awards and claiming 67 nationals.

With 794 additional applications but 58 million euros less to distribute, the overall success rate of the initial grant fell below the psychological bar of 10%: 9.8 against 13.3 in 2020.

Despite these obstacles, the funder still has much to celebrate, having attracted 3,272 applications and consolidating its status as a world leader by attracting 13 beneficiaries from the United States to the EU.

“I am delighted to see these new ERC Starting Fellowship winners ready to break new ground and build their own teams,” said ERC President Maria Leptin. “Some of them will come back from overseas, thanks to ERC grants, to do science in Europe.

British and Swiss exclusion is nonetheless a doomed start for the EU, with bloc funding helping to feed some of those now facing tough decisions.

“I studied and worked for 15 years in the UK and France before moving to Switzerland, benefiting from European and UK funding programs along the way,” said Dr Elsner. “I have always considered myself a European citizen and the exclusion of Switzerland from Horizon Europe is a big blow.”

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