University chiefs have warned that potentially life-changing Scottish research is on the verge of stalling amidst Brexit uncertainty.
They fear the sector could lose out on hundreds of millions of pounds in research grants if the result is a no-deal.
Universities Scotland and Universities UK have now called on the government to take urgent steps to address a situation they have described as “self-sabotage”.
Academics will find out whether they have been awarded funding from the latest round of European Research Council’s advanced grants by April 8, but the UK government has not explained how it will ensure that successful applications will be funded if they are in the middle of the evaluation process.
The university bodies argue the UK Government has also failed to reveal what future system will be implemented after Brexit to replace funding for world-leading research, in the event of no-deal.
The UK was the most successful country in the last round of ERC Advanced Grants, with 66 applicants awarded a total of £133 million in funding.
In Scotland, there are currently six ERC funded projects, backed by £13 million of grants.
The UK will leave the EU on March 29, 2019 without a deal unless all the EU leaders agree to delay Brexit or a deal is agreed by parliament.
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “Scotland punches well above its weight in research that changes lives and drives industry, yet in a few days we could find a vital source of funding cut off.
“In terms of research, a no-deal Brexit will be a remarkable act of self-sabotage from the government.
“We call on the UK Government to commit to underwrite this funding.”
Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK, added: “Without clarity very soon, vital research could be disrupted which would be hugely damaging to people’s lives.
“The UK also risks losing some of our brightest minds to other countries, if they don’t know how their research will be progressed.”
On April 8, academics working in Scotland will find out if their applications to undertake chemical physics research and deliver innovation to the transport sector have been successful.
The submitted projects include looking at how virtual and augmented reality could be used to enhance passenger experiences and the use of lasers to dissolve drugs in the correct part of the body.
A spokeswoman for the University of Highlands and Islands said yesterday: “One of our main areas of concern is research collaborations and funding.
“Brexit will have an impact on research and knowledge exchange activities at Scottish universities in numerous areas.
“Our concerns are broadly similar to those of all UK universities, including levels of funding, availability of research consumables and equipment, availability of data and access to facilities in the EU.”
Professor Paul Hagan, vice principal for research at RGU, added: “While we do not know the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, it is clear that the potential for a ‘no deal’ or a ‘hard’ Brexit puts Scotland’s global reputation for research excellence at risk.
“This is not just a question of funding, as we have been able to build our own research capacity, capability and competitiveness by building partnerships with institutions across Europe.
“While uncertainty surrounding the impact of Brexit remains, what is clear is that Scotland, RGU and many other universities have benefited significantly from European engagement.”
An Aberdeen University spokesman said: “We are fully supportive of the sector’s call that the UK Government clarifies its position and underwrites vital European research funding prior to our exit from the EU.
“Along with colleagues elsewhere, we are concerned by the loss of research funding as a result of our departure from the EU.
“However, as part of our wider Brexit preparations, we have taken practical steps to ensure the risk is minimised.
“For example, we have informed the UK Government of all of our current European research funding that qualifies for its underwrite guarantee, to ensure that live European grants will continue to be covered post-Brexit.
“In addition, we are liaising with relevant organisations for information on live grants that do not fall under these schemes.”