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No deal Brexit threatens “vital” research, warn UK university leaders

UK university leaders have written to MPs in the UK to warn of a threat to “vital” research and student exchange in the case of a “no deal” in the Brexit negotiations.

UK university leaders have written to MPs asking for assurance providing access to funding for "vital" research in the case of a no deal. Photo: pxhere

The letter also details the need for the UK government to replace research funding sources

Presidents and chairs of Universities UK, the Russell Group, Guild HE, Million Plus and University Alliance have co-signed an open letter detailing reasons why they believe the UK leaving the EU without a deal would be one of “the biggest threats [UK] universities have ever faced”.

“Time is running out to make decisions on issues which will ultimately affect the country and society as a whole”

In the event of a no deal, vital research links will be compromised, “from new cancer treatments to technologies combatting climate change”, the letter states, while the exchange of students, staff and knowledge would be “seriously damaged”.

“We share the concerns of business about the impact of no deal on everything from supply chains to security and travel.

“It is no exaggeration to suggest that this would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover,” the letter reads.

It is critical to the national interest, the economy, communities and wider society, that UK universities thrive post-Brexit, it continues, and the government must avoid crashing out of the EU without a deal on March 29.

The government must put the right measures and guarantees in place to ensure UK universities can continue to succeed post-Brexit, it adds.

The letter also details the need for the UK government to replace research funding sources from which may no longer be accessible at the end of March.

Specifically, the leaders want assurance of domestic alternatives with the same level of funding, if the UK is unable to participate in the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions funding schemes.

This level of funding is required to “support world-leading breakthroughs”, the letter states.

“We are home to one of the best research systems in the world, attractive to stellar academics, top students and global partnerships, and we must not let this be compromised by a no deal Brexit,” Janet Beer, president of Universities UK, said.

“Time is running out to make decisions on issues which will ultimately affect the country and society as a whole.”

“Leaving the EU without a deal would be a serious setback for these fields of discovery”

Beer added that it is “critical” to extend guarantees to cover ERC and MSCA funding in the event of a no deal.

Guarantees to the continuation of Horizon 2020 funding in the event of a no deal has already been provided by the government, according to Beer.

“Without cast-iron assurances, world-leading academics and researchers may leave for countries where access to ERC funding is not at risk, and those currently considering relocating to the UK may think again,” she added.

Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, said many scientific and medical breakthroughs on projects led by UK universities are only possible through EU research collaborations.

“Leaving the EU without a deal would be a serious setback for these fields of discovery and many more, from the arts and social sciences to engineering and nuclear research,” Rothwell noted.

Research programs under risk of being disrupted include the university’s work on proton-beam therapy to allow more precise targeting of tumour sites and minimise damage to surrounding tissue in cancer patients, and its Nobel-prize winning work on graphene, the strongest and most versatile material ever identified.

“Researchers who have already spent months or even years preparing funding bids would be left high and dry, including those whose application would be stuck in the middle of the evaluation process,” Rothwell warned.

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