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Brexit: UK research fears being left out in the cold

Nurses say the UK’s position as a world leader in health research is already showing signs of strain, following the shock decision to leave the European Union. 
Brexit

Nurses say the UKs position as a world leader in health research is already showing signs of strain, following the shock decision to leave the European Union

Several months after the European Union referendum result, many in the nursing research community continue to fear the future.

I was shocked by the outcome, says RCN Research Society professional adviser Ann McMahon. My assumption is that the research community as a whole wanted to remain. Its beginning to get quite real for people now. There is concern about what might happen.

She believes there has been an impact already. My sense is that we are not being approached in the way that we would have been in the past, even though were still part of the EU at the moment.

Dr McMahon

...

Nurses say the UK’s position as a world leader in health research is already showing signs of strain, following the shock decision to leave the European Union   


UK universities have been major beneficiaries of EU research funding. Picture: iStock

Several months after the European Union referendum result, many in the nursing research community continue to fear the future.

‘I was shocked by the outcome,’ says RCN Research Society professional adviser Ann McMahon. ‘My assumption is that the research community as a whole wanted to remain. It’s beginning to get quite real for people now. There is concern about what might happen.’

She believes there has been an impact already. ‘My sense is that we are not being approached in the way that we would have been in the past, even though we’re still part of the EU at the moment.’ 

Dr McMahon is particularly worried about the opportunities for continuing to work in close partnerships with European colleagues. ‘Research is inevitably a collaborative endeavour,’ she says. ‘And there are many strong collaborations in nursing research across Europe, so it’s hard to know how the future will pan out.’

Strong research ties 

Specifically, she cites Horizon 2020, the largest EU research and innovation programme ever launched, which includes a variety of projects focused on health and well-being. ‘If you look at the opportunities it offers, what will be in its place? How will they preserve what’s good about it?’ says Dr McMahon.

‘Currently we’re part of the biggest multinational research collaboration in the world – and it looks like we’ll move from being a driver to an international partner. The whole Brexit argument was to get to a better place, not worse, so this is a major challenge.’ 

This summer, chancellor Philip Hammond guaranteed funding for EU-funded research projects - including via Horizon 2020 - past the date that the UK remains a member. This means that British universities have certainty over future funding, so can continue to bid for EU funds until the UK departs, says the government. The guarantee followed reports that some UK researchers were concerned they were being sidelined and deemed a risk when bidding for funding on joint projects with their European partners.

In the past, UK universities have been major beneficiaries of EU research funding. According to Universities UK, data for 2014-15 show that universities attracted around £836 million in research grants and contracts from EU sources, directly supporting almost 9,000 jobs. Any future UK government funding is likely to be dependent on its own priorities and the country’s financial stability.

Above all, researchers need security, Dr McMahon believes, with strong ties maintained. ‘It’s crucial that we continue to collaborate,’ she says. ‘Negotiations must ensure that as a consequence of Brexit, the UK doesn’t become isolated from Europe’s research and innovation endeavour – that’s so important.’ 

Educational risk 

At the moment, it’s business as usual for the European Oncology Nursing Society (EONS), whose current president is Danny Kelly, the RCN’s chair of nursing research based at Cardiff University. EONS includes more than 30 national member societies from throughout the EU and beyond. ‘We’re a European organisation that is professional, rather than political,’ explains Professor Kelly. ‘We’re committed to continuing as before.’

This includes their current research project, Recognising the value of cancer nursing, incorporating data gathering in four contrasting European countries, where nursing is at different stages of development. ‘This will carry on regardless of Brexit,’ says Professor Kelly. ‘But it would probably be better if there were other sources of funding open to us to be able to build on our work.’

More than 500 oncology nurses from all over Europe and further afield attended EONS congress in Dublin in October. ‘It’s a significant group and the overwhelming reaction to Brexit was both surprise and dismay,’ says Professor Kelly. ‘There’s also a sense of disbelief. There’s a lot of uncertainty about how this will impact on research, education, jobs and generally on nursing and healthcare in the UK.’ 

He says that younger nurses in particular feel they will be adversely affected by the decision, especially those wanting to study or work in other European countries, for example, through joining the well-established Erasmus programme for students. ‘This is part of the educational climate around the EU that could be at risk,’ says Professor Kelly. ‘It’s not research as such, but these kinds of programmes lead to and foster research in the future.’

Major EU-funded research and education programmes
  • Horizon 2020: the largest EU research and innovation programme ever, with almost 80 billion euros of funding available from 2014-2020. Among the aims is to reduce red tape, enabling projects to get off the ground and achieve results more quickly.
  • Erasmus: established in the late 1980s, this exchange programme for students within the EU involves more than 4,000 individuals at any one time, who can study abroad for 3-12 months.
  • RN4CAST: a European-funded registered nurse forecasting study, running from 2009-11, with a total grant of 3 million euros. Highly successful, it resulted in more than 50 scientific publications and had a big impact. Key findings included that increasing a nurse’s workload by one patient raised the risk of mortality by 7%.  
Great Ormond Street: ‘Funding for research needs to be long term’

Among those organisations voicing concerns about the threat to the future of its research is Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), a world leader in paediatric studies and treatment.

Currently GOSH has more than ten gene therapy trials open – the largest number at a single centre in Europe. ‘Referrals are accepted from all over the world,’ says gene therapy research nurse Katie Snell. With a caseload of around 30 patients, her work mainly involves children who have immune system deficiencies.

‘There is a real sense of the unknown now,’ says Ms Snell. ‘The government has given financial assurances in the short term, but we play the long game in research.’ For example, before a project can begin, proof of concept must be established to demonstrate feasibility. ‘This can take years,’ she says.

‘Before I worked here, I didn’t understand all of the intricacies, time, hoops, effort and dedication it takes to get a project up and running. If we’re only looking at funding for the next five years or so, that’s just not long enough. We need to be looking much further ahead.’

Paediatric research is already underfunded in the UK says GOSH, attracting only 5% of funds every year. Since 2010, the trust has received £25 million from the EU – 10% of its funding – for research into new treatments and cures, with 44 EU-funded research projects active.   

When research is focused on extremely rare diseases, the number of affected patients in one country is usually not enough to prove or disprove theories, explains Ms Snell. ‘That’s why trials often involve children from many countries,’ she says. ‘We need the numbers.’

Restricting freedom of movement for EU patients and their families taking part in clinical trials risks losing this larger patient base, which is crucial to improving knowledge and understanding, GOSH argues.

Mobility of staff is another factor crucial to the future of GOSH’s research. Working alongside Ms Snell are colleagues from all over the world, with around one quarter of research staff from other EU countries. ‘It’s important to attract those who excel in the early stages of their careers, training and nurturing them, wherever they come from,’ she says. ‘They can then take skills back to their own countries, expanding research there.

‘But we need staff to feel valued and to want to come and work here. If we can’t maintain our position as a world leader in research, then the whole of GOSH will lose out.’

 


Lynne Pearce is a freelance health writer

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