UK-led cancer and climate trials at risk as British researchers become liability


British researchers say they are being shut out of bids for major European research partnerships, or asked to keep a low profile, because of fears that the threat of a no-deal Brexit could contaminate chances of success.

An analysis by University College London of the latest EU research funding data shows that UCL and eight other Russell Group universities were running around 50 big European research collaborations a year in 2016, but only 20 in 2018.

Researchers say that taking a back seat is harmful to prestige, and also means they have less opportunity to steer the direction of research and are likely to have a smaller slice of the funding. Many are voluntarily not leading, however, because they fear that if UK academics are in charge of an important proposal, the research may not be funded.

Prof Michael Arthur, president of UCL, says: “What we are seeing is we are still participating in European networks, but we are leading less.”

Birmingham University has been asked to step down from leading five bids for training networks, funded by the EU’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, in case a UK partner compromises their chances. The networks are designed to share best practice and teach early career researchers to be more entrepreneurial and creative.

Robin Mason, pro vice-chancellor international at Birmingham, says the university’s European partners are, on the whole, being “remarkably forgiving” of the British researchers’ uncertain future, but “patience is wearing thin”.

Prof Pamela Kearns, who heads up Cancer Research UK’s national clinical trial centre at the university, is currently sponsoring 16 clinical trials, the majority for childhood cancers, in 21 European countries. She says the political uncertainty is making research partners nervous.

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“In one recent discussion about a funding bid with very longstanding European partners, it was decided they wouldn’t have a UK partner on the project as it would be too great a risk,” she says.

For the past year Kearns has focused on ensuring she can keep her trials running if Britain crashes out of the EU, but the universities and hospitals involved have voiced concerns.

Cancer will be the main theme for health research under the European Commission’s new €100bn (£89.9bn) research funding programme, Horizon Europe, which will succeed the current Horizon 2020 scheme. If Britain crashes out of the EU on 31 October, there is no guarantee it could continue to participate in the programme.

“For the UK not to be able to be a partner in a united European approach to making a difference in cancer would be unacceptable,” Kearns says.

The head of one leading research university, who wishes to remain anonymous, puts it bluntly: “Leaving with no deal will be a fucking disaster for research. We are already hearing that researchers in the EU are being told ‘Why take the risk of partnering with the UK?’.”

Researchers at LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment recently stepped back from leading a new European research network exploring how switching to low-carbon fuels affects countries dependent on coal and oil.

Grapn is falling UK-led research projects

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the institute, says: “A lot of the other partners are very uncertain about whether our presence in the consortium will stymie the project. Research collaborations only work if you can establish trust. It doesn’t matter how good your reputation is if the UK is seen to be hostile to the outside world.”

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Peter Cox, professor of climate system dynamics at Exeter University, agrees: “It wouldn’t be right for us to lead on new European research projects at the moment.”

Cox says the threat of being shut out of European funding and collaboration if there is no deal is huge. His field of climate prediction has relied on cross-European collaboration for decades, because it is complex and requires local data.

Johannes Angermuller, professor of discourse, languages and applied linguistics at the Open University, says the threat of a hard Brexit feels like “a global production chain breaking down” for researchers.

Angermuller has had two prestigious European Research Council grants, during which he worked in the UK and at an institution in Paris. However, the French institution may no longer host his future projects because of the threat of a hard Brexit.

“I thought I was protected from the storm because I have strong contacts in Europe, but I realise I may be wrong,” he says.

“British researchers simply aren’t being asked to participate in bigger projects because of the uncertainty. I haven’t been invited to participate by anyone over the past 12 months. Normally I might have had three or four approaches.”

Lee Cronin, regius professor of chemistry at Glasgow University, says: “I have noticed a big drop in discussions about new grant applications and collaborations, and a drop in researchers who want to come to the UK.”

Universities UK (UUK), the vice-chancellors’ body, is lobbying the government to accept the European Commission’s offer for it to continue paying into the EU budget for 2019 and 2020 to ensure stability. This would allow researchers to continue to participate fully in the Horizon 2020 programme.

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Prof Adrian Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of London, has been commissioned by the government to look into how the UK might set up its own alternative to Horizon Europe in the event of no deal. He is to report to ministers this month, leaving a very small window to have something in place before the exit deadline.

Vivienne Stern, director of UUK’s international arm, says: “In a no-deal scenario we would still hope that we could associate with Horizon Europe. But if not, I would be really worried about our ability to create a decent alternative in three months.”

“The danger is that we replace it with something new and shiny but trivial in comparison, which may not even replace the financial value and won’t come close to replacing the intangible benefits.”

Prof Philip Stier, Oxford’s head of atmospheric, oceanic and planetary physics, agrees: “Even if there is a replacement UK fund, it is hard to see how you could replace those close collaborations. If you’re not at the table it’s much harder to influence.”

Prof Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, adds: “One of the biggest arguments in favour of buying into Horizon Europe is continuity. It would make it much easier for universities in the UK to hold on to their best European researchers.”



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