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

Projects headed by UK universities have fallen sharply since Brexit vote.

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.

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.

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.

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