Brexit could have a “catastrophic” impact on UK cancer research and may trigger a manpower crisis, a new study has said.
Overseas staff contributed to nearly 80% of papers published in the UK and collaboration with EU scientists has become increasingly common.
Restrictions on free movement envisaged after the separation risk undermining care based on the science, a Queen’s University Belfast-led review showed.
Professor Mark Lawler, from the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen’s, said: “Nearly 20% of our research staff are non-UK born.
“The Brexit effect on our research reputation could be catastrophic, and given that high-quality research underpins better cancer outcomes, we risk undermining the cancer care of our patients.”
Next March’s looming divorce has already halted a heart drug study due to concerns over how new medicines will be approved after Brexit.
The government has said it is “confident” Britain will still provide a good environment for clinical trials.
UK researchers have attracted €4.8 billion of European funding since 2014.
In 2015 the UK was the number one destination in research funding in the EU but has since been overtaken by Germany, evidence of what academics said was the Brexit effect.
Researchers from Queen’s, in collaboration with King’s College London and the University of Leeds, have produced new proof of the positive benefit that researchers from other EU countries have on cancer research in the UK.
The study, recently published in the premier cancer journal, The Lancet Oncology, demonstrated the increasing number of scientific papers on cancer published by teams which include at least one non-UK EU born member of staff.
It said reviews that included non-UK EU born authors had a much greater scientific impact, being published in the top tier of medical and scientific journals.
Prof Lawler added: “The challenge of cancer is so great, it is critical that we bring together the best minds to find the best solutions to improve cancer outcomes for our citizens.
“Currently in the UK we attract high-quality talent (both from the UK and elsewhere in the EU) and that is why we are a powerhouse for cancer research across Europe.”
Prof Richard Sullivan, director of the Institute for Cancer Policy at Kings College London and joint author of the paper, said the results indicated a very positive and statistically significant contribution of foreign staff to the UK cancer research knowledge base.
He commented: “In the uncertainty of a post-Brexit world, we risk the distinct possibility that cancer scientists from other parts of the EU either won’t want to or won’t be allowed to work in the UK. The knock-on effect could be devastating.
“It is clear that potential European research partners are worrying about having a UK researcher on their collaborative research grant.”
Last week it emerged that UK trials of a study for a new heart drug were halted amid uncertainty over Brexit.
US-based research firm Recardio was due to begin trials of dutogliptin on patients in Exeter, Leeds and Clydebank.