Blog: What Brexit means for research into brain tumours

Friday 27 January 2017

Policy Officer, James Thorneycroft, discusses how leaving the EU could affect research into brain tumours.

"We now know the Government's twelve point plan for Brexit, yet we still don't really know what it could mean for scientific research.

The Government want to secure an agreement to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives. A new immigration policy will focus on attracting the best and brightest. Appropriate contributions to the EU budget may persist, which could include cash for access payments to enable UK universities continued access to EU research grants. An EU deal will be scrutinized by Parliament and the Government have stated that no deal is better than a bad deal.

The deal we end up with will be shaped by a myriad of complex and interwoven factors. National elections across Europe and the potency of the Labour party will play a part.

The Government have outlined a vision of national self-determination. That will not happen overnight. It will take time to develop new opportunities in scientific research with other countries of the kind which exist currently within the EU. People with a brain tumour cannot afford the luxury of time. In scientific research and access to new medicines the sector's relationship with the EU works very well.

That is why the Brain Tumour Charity have been meeting with MPs to reiterate the importance of continued close collaboration in life sciences with the EU. Pan-European collaboration is particularly important for rarer cancers, which benefit from the critical mass of expertise and resources, aligned regulation and a wider pool of patients necessary to conduct clinical trials.

Let's look briefly at two concerns; money and people.

Research income from the EU to UK universities saw an increase of 68% between 2009 and 2014 (1). After investment from The Brain Tumour Charity, the Samantha Dickson Brain Cancer Unit was able to obtain £1.7 million of additional funding from the European Research Council (ERC) towards our research. The Government will need to either deliver continued access to EU research grants or find alternative funding beyond 2020.

Freedom of movement boosts pan-European collaboration and the exchange of skills, expertise and best practice. We already know of several prominent people in research who have turned down positions in the UK or moved into another field of research as a direct result of the UK's decision to the leave the EU. As it stands research into brain tumour is under resourced and the Government will need to ensure that the UK can continue to attract talent in this sector if access to EU funding, resources and infrastructure is restricted.

Civil servants tell us that they're cautiously optimistic and that their counterparts in Europe support a sensible and deliberate deal. MPs tell us that the collective clout of pharmaceuticals, charities and universities will ensure that scientific research is a priority in the negotiations.

This confidence is not entirely unfounded. The UK is a valuable scientific partner to life sciences in the EU. For example, the UK's Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency is responsible for assessing the safety of the majority of devices currently placed on the EU market. There is a convincing argument as to why both sides should find common ground and reach a mutually beneficial, win-win settlement.

Contacts in Brussels are less optimistic. It will not be easy. Bitter elections across Europe will raise questions to which Britain could be a footnote about the direction, purpose and identity of the EU. We must be wary of our own hubris, a confidence verging on arrogance which is rooted in a long held belief that Britain is an irresistible and indispensable partner.

We await further details to get a better sense of what all this could mean for the future of scientific research in this country. The Brain Tumour Charity will continue to promote the benefits of close collaboration in scientific research with the EU. After all, there are few details about what a satisfactory alternative which could bring progress in diagnosis, treatment and care may look like. We now know a little bit more about what leaving the EU means, but there remains plenty at stake."

1. Royal Society. How does EU research funding compare with UK domestic research funding? | Royal Society [Internet]. [cited 2016 Apr 1]. Available here