Research by UK universities faces funding cuts as EU support ends

The foundations for Wales’s green economy are being laid by academics at Swansea University, just across the bay from Port Talbot’s steelworks.

Academics in campus labs are developing materials to prevent steel corrosion. This will extend the life of machine components and help sustain sustainable industry. An “Active House” is located nearby that can generate its own sustainable energy.

“We are not focused on short-term goals. We’re looking at how we can build capability over a number years,” stated Justin Searle (technology director for Specific), a university project that partners with businesses to test new methods of green construction.

These projects, along with over 150 others in the UK, are now at risk of being closed as the EU funding which has supported them ends this month.

European structural investment funds (Esif), pots of money that are allocated by Brussels to support the development in member countries, were created to finance projects by universities and public bodies. They also fund community organizations that promote long-term regional growth.

According to Universities UK, Brussels has invested at least PS950mn in 166 university-led projects across England and Wales since 2014. This is to connect academic research with business to stimulate economic growth.

The UK has been formally expelled from the EU in 2020 and cannot access these funds. Although many projects received money from pre-existing allocations after Brexit, these funds are due to expire at the end March.

Without this money, university leaders claim that projects that generate millions of pounds per year for the economy and employ hundreds in cities like Newcastle, Birmingham, and Swansea will not be able to survive.

The UK government created the PS2.6 billion shared prosperity fund (SPF) in its place. It has different priorities in funding and university leaders claim that the replacement has resulted in many projects being cut short.

Sector leaders claim that once they are gone, the majority of innovative research projects won’t return. This will hamper regional development and progress towards net zero and skill targets. It will also leave the innovation sector with funding gaps.

Swansea’s vice chancellor Paul Boyle said that the sector was on the brink of disaster. It is hard to imagine another time when so much of the valuable research and innovation work that has been done in this sector will be lost.

“This is despite UK government’s claim that innovation and research are at the core of its plans for economic growth.”

Boyle predicts that the loss of EU funding could lead to the closing of 50 projects, which employ around 240 people in Wales’s second city.

Shareen Doak, coordinator of Swansea’s Celtic Advanced Life Science Innovation Network – Calin, an Esif-funded project that conducts bioscience research for local businesses, said “It’s quite a blow.”

She said, “It’s more than just doing research for the sake of it. It’s about creating impact for local economies.”

The network has been partnering with nearly 200 companies in 50 projects since 2017, ranging from food hygiene to drug discovery. Doak stated that it has invested PS6mn to partner companies in the last five years.

Calin could be closed if Esif runs out of funding. Already, staff are leaving to find new jobs.

Jane Robinson, Newcastle University’s pro-vice chancellor, warned about the dangers of closing such programs. She noted that you have to “dismantle all these structures –the skill base, relationships, and the networks”.

Newcastle’s at-risk projects include the Northern Accelerator, a start-up incubator, and “spin-outs” from North East universities.

Britain’s desire to be a “science superpower”, meant that replacements would likely spring up, but it would be expensive and inconvenient to start over, Robinson said.

“You spend the next few decades trying to rebuild it. It would be much more efficient to use public money if there was just continuity.

Leaders at universities warned that Esif’s end would result in a funding gap for British innovation, and that SPF, which is less than the PS1.5bn received annually previously, could be detrimental to their institutions.

The SPF is distributed by local authorities rather than EU funds that were distributed centrally. This allows for local priorities to be taken into consideration when allocating allocations.

While Brussels allocated investment over six years, which allows for collaboration over time, UK prosperity fund investments are guaranteed for only three years, which limits the potential for coordinated projects.

They are also inclined to favor projects that have immediate impact on communities. Therefore, ambitious projects like Calin — which includes six universities in Ireland and Wales — don’t fit the bill.

According to the government, universities play a vital role in local growth. They are encouraged to work with councils to obtain funding from UKSPF.

It said that the Councils make decisions about which projects they will fund through UKSPF, and work closely with universities to deliver on their behalf.

Robinson in Newcastle is positive about securing cash from other sources, including the private sector to replace EU funding.

The future of these projects is uncertain. Northern Accelerator received money from Research England (the UK government) only until September. Meanwhile, a large number of R&D laboratories in Swansea are facing a steep cliff edge. Researchers are concerned that infrastructure that was built over many years will be abandoned.

Universities UK called for “bridging” funding immediately to ensure that projects can continue. The UK estimates that PS170mn will support the 166 projects considered to be in danger until 2024-25. In the meantime, 300 small- and medium-sized businesses contacted Jeremy Hunt on Thursday to ask him to help them protect their businesses from the “cliff edge” while fostering economic recovery.

Sector leaders are optimistic, however, and believe that ministers and universities must find new ways to finance research.

Robinson stated that although funding has ceased, there is still demand. “We must think about how to fill that gap.”