No-deal Brexit threatens cancer and climate change research, universities warn

UK universities have warned that upcoming cancer treatments and anti-climate change technology are among the research projects that would suffer under a no-deal Brexit.

In an open letter to MPs, groups representing more than 150 higher education providers across the UK said the impact of a no-deal scenario could lead to “an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover.”

“Vital research links will be compromised, from new cancer treatments to technologies combatting climate change,” it reads.

“The valuable exchange of students, staff and knowledge would be seriously damaged. And we share the concerns of business about the impact of no deal on everything from supply chains to security and travel.”

The letter, which is signed by bodies including Universities UK, the Russell Group, Guild HE, MillionPlus and University Alliance, calls on the government to “demonstrate the required ambition, put the right measures and guarantees in place, and, crucially, avoid the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on 29 March.”

Examples of projects receiving funding from the European Research Council (ERC) that would come under threat include a scalpel that tells surgeons immediately whether the tissue they are cutting is cancerous or not, which was developed by a Hungarian researcher at Imperial College London. Also at risk is a new type of battery that will reduce the time needed to charge electric cars to just minutes.

The letter comes as the Russell Group revealed that the number of EU students enrolling in leading UK institutions in the 2018-19 academic year fell 3 per cent from the previous year.

The fall, created by a decline in the number of postgraduate students, followed an increase in each of the five previous academic years.

Professor Dame Janet Beer, the president of Universities UK, warned that “world-leading academics and researchers” may quit the UK for countries with access to EU funding programmes - or avoid coming here - without reassurances about replacing cash streams.

She said: “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.

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

In the letter, the academics say an industry that contributes more than £21bn to the UK’s GDP every year would be badly hit by a no-deal Brexit.

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, said: “(The university’s) vital and transformative research programmes risk being disrupted, such as our work on proton-beam therapy for cancer patients, which allows more precise targeting of tumour sites and minimises damage to surrounding tissue, and our Nobel-prize winning work on graphene, the strongest, thinnest and most versatile material ever identified.

“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.

“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.”

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