Cross-section through reconstructed human skin, cultured in the laboratory, used to test the safety of products applied to the skin. Research by the Swansea-led CALIN project, which works closely with companies.

Cross-section through reconstructed human skin, cultured in the laboratory, used to test the safety of products applied to the skin. Research by the Swansea-led CALIN project, which is at risk of closure and which works closely with companies on innovation in life sciences.

Companies and innovation will suffer unless UK Government protects at-risk research projects, writes Professor Paul Boyle, Vice-Chancellor.

The Chair of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, Stephen Crabbe MP, recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to flag the concerns of universities in Wales about the limitations of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund as a replacement for EU Structural Funds. It is clear that this is not simply a problem for our universities but is also damaging for our wider economy too.   

The perception of universities as ivory towers, isolated from the wider world and its impact, has always been false. Swansea University was founded a century ago with the needs of the booming South Wales metals industries in mind. Today, the inextricable link between university research and industry is clearly demonstrated through the 50 EU-funded projects at risk at Swansea University.

These projects have been built upon effective partnerships with business and industry, through which we have offered our research expertise to companies, provided a test bed for innovations, or nurtured new talent. This is under threat should the UK Government not provide an effective replacement for the EU Structural Funding, which will no longer be accessible to the UK by the end of 2023. It is impossible to anticipate the full scale of loss and impact, but we can say for certain that this impact will not be confined to universities alone.   

For some companies that have been closely involved in EU-funded large scale research projects, the impact will be immediate and visible. 

One example is the METaL (Materials and Manufacturing Education, Teaching and Learning) project, led by a Swansea University team and supported by the European Social Fund.  It provided companies in the materials and manufacturing industries with free or low-cost training for their employees, in sectors that are critical to the 21st century economy, including low-carbon steelmaking, electric vehicles and semiconductors.  Due to the cessation of funding, sadly this project has already had to close.

Other impacts may be less visible but would still have a considerable effect on our country’s future economic prosperity.  This is because many of these EU-funded projects play a crucial role for industry, providing test labs for new innovations, where start-ups and established companies can draw upon research expertise and facilities to develop new processes and products. 

The Celtic Advanced Life Science Innovation Network (CALIN) of three Welsh and three Irish universities, led by Swansea University, underlines the importance of research to local industry.  This project offers research and development opportunities to SMEs in the sector, providing open access to life science experts and facilities.  It has been funded by the ERDF and the Ireland-Wales EU Funds programme.

CALIN scientists have worked with Virustatic, which develops protein-based solutions for a range of industries, including medicines, feminine health and antimicrobial textiles, which means less reliance on harmful and polluting chemical compounds. Their best-known product is the Virustatic® SHIELD, a breakthrough in viral filtration technology, which won the MediWales Innovation Award.

Paul Hope, founder and technical director at Virustatic, said:

Our work with CALIN scientists has been vital. The funding facilitated access to world-class expertise, and supports us, a Welsh SME, in being able to bring new, innovative products to market. Our research collaboration also led directly to Virustatic being able to recruit two new scientists to continue the product development.”

Without such support, bright ideas of the future may stay on the drawing board and real-world innovations may be harder to get off the ground. Yet this vital work is now at risk, as CALIN too is under threat, unless funding of the nature and scale of EU Structural Funding is replaced.  

Given what is at stake, you might assume that the cost of protecting this research would be significant, but this is not so.  We estimate that ringfencing c.£170m, or just 6% of the total UK Shared Prosperity Fund budget, would protect and retain these university-led projects across the whole of the UK, not just Wales, until 2025.

The decision to end these projects has not been made strategically because they are failing to deliver – it has resulted simply because of the end of a funding stream with no planned bridge funding in place.  With the cliff edge looming, now is the time for the UK Government to provide a safety net in the form of immediate replacement funding for at-risk projects like these, and the many others under threat across Wales and the UK. 

It is a small price to pay to avoid a disaster for innovation, industry and our economy.

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