Universities UK chief: No deal Brexit could threaten EU funds for cancer and climate research

Friday, January 4, 2019

British universities may lose more than a billion pounds of research funding in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the president of Universities UK warned today. 

Funding from the Horizon 2020 scheme and the European Research Council (ERC) is expected to cease immediately if the UK exits without a deal on 29th March, potentially endangering research into cancer and climate change, among other issues. 

While the government has guaranteed to underwrite payments for the Horizon 2020 scheme, Professor Dame Janet Beer said universities were set to lose out on £1.2 billion of ERC grants over the next two years. 

Speaking to talkRADIO’s Mike Graham, Dame Janet said: “EU grants are a very important part of the way in which we conduct and support our research into a huge range of projects designed to improve people’s lives, and to work on global challenges that know no borders such as climate change, clean energy, infectious diseases or food security."


'What happens to the students?'

British universities were awarded nearly 2000 ERC grants since 2007, more than any other EU member state, with about 80% of those leading to scientific breakthroughs.

“Many of the holders of those grants are European, and it would be great if we could feel confident that they will still be there after we leave but if you are holding a massive, multi-million pound ERC grant and you’re working at Imperial College and you’re from Hungary, you’re going to be thinking that you won't get that money if you stay in the UK,” Dame Janet said.

She also raised concerns about how Brexit would affect the nearly 15,000 UK students studying abroad, many of whom are funded through the Erasmus+ scheme. 

Although the government has pledged to underwrite Erasmus+ funding until 2020, Dame Janet said there were still unanswered questions about the project’s future.

“If we crash out will every single UK university have to have a single agreement with every single EU university where a student is studying abroad?” she said. 

“What happens to those 15,000 students, what happens to their health insurance, or their travel insurance the day after we crash out without a deal?”

Universities UK has held talks with vice-chancellors across the EU, although Dame Janet said ultimately it was up to politicians in both Westminster and Brussels to remove barriers to research partnerships after the 29th March. 

She added: “For most EU countries the UK is their major collaborator, and they don’t want these partnerships to cease, they don’t want the fantastic research that’s going on to falter because the beneficiaries are all of us, everybody. 

“However, you know as well as I do that if it’s about the 27 then they will hold a single line, so bilaterally absolutely, great conversations, but ultimately they will say ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’”

Words: Cormac Connelly-Smith