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Number of UK-based ERC early-career grant winners halves

The UK has tumbled down the table of countries hosting winners of European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants, as consternation grows over reports that the Westminster government is delaying the decision on joining Horizon Europe.

The country hosted the second-most winners in the 2022 round – 70, second only to Germany – but for 2023 it has fallen to fifth place, with 32 grantees based at UK institutions.

In contrast, the number of grantees with UK nationality has remained roughly the same, with the country coming in sixth place in both years.

Grantees, who get up to €1.5 million (£1.3 million) over five years, can still get the European Union funding if they move to an institution in the bloc. In July the Westminster government said it would provide funding for those that remain in the UK for funding calls that close on or before 30 September.

The Financial Times reported that Rishi Sunak had planned to delay the decision on whether to finally join Horizon until after the summer holidays.

The ERC has said it will fund UK grantees if an association agreement is in force when grant agreements are signed, meaning some winners of its latest early-career call could still get EU money.

Announcing the funding, ERC president Maria Leptin said the round had one of the highest shares of female grantees ever, making up 43 per cent of grantees, up from 39 per cent in 2022. “Congratulations to all winners and good luck on your path to discovery,” she said.

The overall success rate for the call rose from just under 14 per cent to almost 15 per cent between 2022 and 2023. Any grantee must be within two and seven years of completing their PhD, with a “scientific track record showing great promise”.

UK researchers have repeatedly warned that uncertainty over the country’s role in the programme is putting off EU partners.

The EU has said that the UK will not pay for the years it has been outside the programme, but the Westminster government has said it wants to make sure the country’s contribution adequately considers the full effects of being excluded.