One of Scotland’s top cancer experts is considering moving a major research project abroad amid political turmoil and warnings that a Brexit-linked impasse over EU funding will starve universities of talent.

Dr Payam Gammage, who works at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow, has warned that “crashing out” of the £80bn Horizon Europe programme is accelerating Britain’s decline as a global centre for scientific excellence. He also said the development would significantly reduce Scotland’s appeal to overseas researchers and stressed it was already proving impossible to attract applications from individuals in EU states. 

Dr Gammage is among a number of researchers who have expressed concern after talks aimed at securing associate membership of Horizon Europe hit the buffers. The lack of progress, which is connected to disagreement over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, led to UK-based European Research Council (ERC) awardees being informed that grants would be terminated unless they move projects to the EU or an associated country. They were given a deadline of June 29 to make their choice.

Most of those affected have agreed to cancel ERC funding and continue with backup money from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The UK Government has also insisted that it is pushing to achieve association with Horizon Europe as swiftly as possible. 

However, critics say researchers are in limbo, particularly as the Conservatives launch a leadership contest.

Dr Gammage, who has a five-year, €2m ERC starting grant for work on mitochondrial DNA mutations in cancer, told The Herald that the situation would be deeply damaging to Scotland’s science base. With his funding still in the evaluation stage, he also suggested he was strongly drawn to moving overseas. 

“If there’s a suitable opening to take this project abroad, I will do that rather than go through UKRI,” he said. “The ERC offers better networking and intangible benefits, as well as some tangibles. For example, the ERC has a proof-of-concept scheme, which is only open to investigators who have won ERC grants. With relatively little effort, you can get 150,000 euros in funding to translate your research into reality. In my case, you’re talking about translating our research into cancer treatments. To my knowledge, UKRI has no direct equivalent scheme that does this specifically for UKRI grantees.”

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His remarks follow reports that 115 grants offered through Horizon Europe were cancelled after efforts to finalise Britain’s status stalled. The ERC said recently that 19 UK-based researchers would move to the the EU or an associated country, with 12 cases unresolved.

Dr Gammage told The Herald that a “meaningful” number of ERC grantees were leaving or had left but stressed the bigger concern was over attracting people to Scotland in the first place. 

“I have been trying for the best part of a year now [to bring in researchers] and I am getting almost no applications from people in EU states,” he said. “The position of the UK in global science is on a long-term downward trajectory, and this situation [with Horizon Europe] is only accelerating the descent. The reality is that the UK is not going to associate with Horizon Europe, and the idea that all relevant Brexit-related issues are going to be tied up in the coming months before the UK’s association deadline, while there is a Conservative leadership contest under way, is just not credible.”

He added: “Lots of countries have schemes that will provide considerable sums of money to researchers to do their work in that country, and the more competitive nations offer far more than the UK, both in terms of science budgets and salaries.

“There also needs to be something more than money to pull in the top researchers - these people are sensitive to the tone and stability of the political landscape, and will look for indicators of the medium-to-long term outlook of a host country.”

Dr Gammage’s concerns were echoed by Professor Poppy Lamberton, who is based at Glasgow University. She had secured a €2.49m ERC consolidator grant for work on developing cost-effective, sustainable sanitation measures to protect against schistosomiasis and other water-associated diseases in low- and middle-income countries. However, in the wake of difficulties over Horizon Europe, the project will be funded by UKRI. 

HeraldScotland: Professor Poppy Lamberton, of Glasgow University, is among those who are concerned.Professor Poppy Lamberton, of Glasgow University, is among those who are concerned.

Prof Lamberton told The Herald that there were growing worries for the future of Scottish and British research. “If you’re living in the EU, it’s less likely that you’ll apply to come to Scotland or the rest of the UK now that we’re out of Horizon Europe,” she said.

She also warned that there were doubts about UKRI itself, adding: “The scientific community lacks confidence in their ability to fulfil their commitment over the full five years, with researchers having more trust in the ERC and its financial responsibility. UKRI needs a commitment from the UK Government that it will maintain funding for this.

"UKRI has recently made cuts to the budgets of ongoing grants despite signed contracts, particularly those associated with something called ODA, Official Development Assistance, which promotes economic development and welfare of developing countries. I therefore have concerns that UKRI might not be able to fulfil its financial promise for the full duration of the grant.”

Dr Fergus Cullen, from Edinburgh University, will also be funded by the UKRI after cancellation of his €1.3m ERC starting grant for research on the chemical evolution of galaxies. He said the strength of Edinburgh's astronomy institute and having a partner in the city had convinced him to stay but added that ongoing uncertainty over Horizon Europe would be very harmful. 

“We got a lot of world-class researchers to move to Scotland, and to the UK, because they would apply for ERC grants and they knew that they could, personally, use an ERC grant within a Scottish university,” he added. “Now that's not possible - and I don't know what the situation is going to be in terms of whether people from abroad can apply for this UKRI funding or whatever the replacement within the UK is going to be. I don't think anyone knows what the situation is going to be in the long term. 

“So, I think that's probably the biggest thing that we will lose, potentially – that is, attracting the world's best researchers to come to Scotland who would have come with the ERC funding. I know that even people within the UK are still being encouraged to apply for ERC grants because the UK Government is still saying, ‘we will associate eventually, so you still should do this because we're hoping to associate and it's all going to be fine’. But, for now, they're not and, for now, that means that I don't think anyone is going to be applying to host ERC grants within the UK.”

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Samuel Cohn, professor of medieval history at Glasgow University, who previously secured a €2.4m ERC advanced grant for a project called Art and Inequality in the Post-Black Death Century, said family considerations and his institution's "goodwill" had persuaded him to opt for UKRI replacement funding. But he added: “I think the trend, in terms of the UK’s lessening appeal as a destination for researchers from EU countries, will only get worse with this type of uncertainty over Horizon Europe. Why would anyone from the EU stay or come?”

The UK Government has stressed that if Britain is unable to associate with EU programmes soon, it will be ready to introduce alternative arrangements aimed at attracting world-class talent and securing global collaboration. Officials insist the structure will also ensure investment in vital areas of research and innovation.

A spokeswoman said: “We recognise the EU’s delays to formalising the UK’s association to Horizon Europe have led to uncertainty for researchers, businesses and innovators based in the UK. This is why we have guaranteed funding for eligible, successful applicants to Horizon Europe who are expected to sign grant agreements by December 2022 and who have been unable to sign grant agreements with the EU.

"We are monitoring the effectiveness of the guarantee on an ongoing basis.”