Why the European Research Council matters

31 May 2018

The European Research Council (ERC) is “critically important” for the UK’s research base in the humanities and social sciences, and cannot be replicated, according to a new briefing from the British Academy.

Membership of the ERC is only available to countries who are fully associated with the EU Framework Programmes for research and innovation.

Following the Prime Minister’s speech last week seeking to fully associate to the next European Framework Programme (Horizon Europe/Framework Programme 9) after the UK leaves the EU, this British Academy briefing is intended to contribute to ongoing negotiations on this issue.  

Frontier Knowledge for Future Gain: Why the ERC matters argues that ERC membership is vital to UK research, as well as for building international and interdisciplinary research networks.

The UK has been remarkably successful in winning funding from the ERC. From 2007-15 UK-based researchers in the humanities and social sciences secured €626m in ERC funding, over a third of all the funding available in these subjects.

Working out as €69.5m per year, the British Academy calculates that ERC funding represents nearly a quarter of the average budget for national research councils in these disciplines.

Because ERC grants support frontier research without any pre-conditions, the briefing also argues that the ERC enriches the UK’s research base, especially by encouraging international and interdisciplinary collaboration.

ERC grants also offer valuable support to early career researchers, by encouraging “high-risk, high-gain” ideas which offer international prestige.

Drawing on responses from former and current ERC award holders in the humanities and social sciences in the UK, the British Academy found that prestigious ERC grants act as a powerful ‘pull factor’ for the leading minds to make their livelihoods in the UK.

One award holder said that a Consolidator Grant was the deciding factor in relocating their career to the UK:

“I was deciding whether to move to Europe from my tenured job at an Ivy league American university. The ERC grant was the only way to make the offer from UK universities competitive with the conditions offered in the USA”. (Consolidator Grant award holder)

However, because ERC grants can only be held by those based in Associated Countries, the British Academy warns of the consequences if the UK does not secure Associated Country status in the next EU Framework Programme, including the ERC.

Over half of all UK-based ERC award holders are non-UK nationals, meaning the higher education risks a “major outflow of international research talent” if the UK is not able to associate fully to Horizon Europe.

There is also a danger that the UK will seem a less attractive place for the very best researchers considering their careers.

Today’s briefing follows a series of British Academy-Royal Irish Academy briefings highlighting key issues related to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU within the context of UK-Ireland relations.

Read Frontier Knowledge for Future Gain: Why the ERC matters.

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