Six weeks ago, I attended a departmental meeting on the impact of Brexit on research funding. Amidst all the uncertainty I remember one statement very clearly: “If we leave without a deal, we will no longer be able to apply for European Research Council grants“.

After that meeting, I felt upset, annoyed and confused (and a little hungry, it was a long meeting). But most of all, I wanted to better understand what this statement meant, so I did what I’m paid to do – a bit of research! Here’s how the EU benefits mental health research, the area I work in.

Plugging the UK’s funding gap

Mental health research, regrettably, remains chronically underfunded. With only 6% of the UK’s annual health care budget allocated to mental health, we rely on our European partners to fill the gap. The EU is the largest single funder of mental health research anywhere in Europe and the eighth-largest funder globally.

Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received €8.8 billion of EU science funding. Impressive as these numbers are, I’ve never seen them mentioned in the British media. Why is that?

What’s more, the EU’s Horizon 2020 project made nearly €80 billion available in research funding between 2014 and 2020. The UK has coordinated more projects than any other country in the Horizon 2020 programme – opportunities that would not have been available without the European Union. To me this is such a vivid example of being ‘Stronger In’.

This includes the European mental health research agenda. I’m not sure about you, but considering the prevalence of mental health issues and the lack of access to services, that’s something I quite like the sound of.

“I remember the adverts on local buses”

From 2014 to 2018, I worked at the Mood Disorders Centre at the University of Exeter. The MoodFOOD trial that got €9.8 million from the European Commission studied the role of diet and lifestyle changes in preventing depression, and Exeter was one of the four European places running the trial. The other partners were German, Dutch and Spanish.

I remember the trial being awarded to Exeter: it was the biggest trial running in our centre, bringing a whole new team of staff, and an exciting opportunity for 250 participants to take part in. I remember seeing leaflets in GP surgeries, adverts on local buses and interviews on local radio stations. The project had a huge impact on our department, our university and the city of Exeter.

The University of Exeter has since been awarded another project, worth €3.9 million. This project looks to create a mobile application to help young people monitor and learn about their emotions. The ECOWEB project is a vital piece of research, considering the growing rates and earlier onset of mental health problems among young people. Again, this funding will allow a huge number of young people in Devon the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research. 

European research funding gives UK patients, the public and organisations an opportunity to deploy the widest range of innovative new treatments. It’s vital that we don’t cut ourselves off from these hugely beneficial pan-European research opportunities.

EU nationals are at the heart of British research

Scientific research also benefits hugely from the free movement of labour. EU freedom of movement allows researchers and clinicians to work in any member state. One in six of all academic staff at UK universities are non-UK EU nationals.

All research projects I’ve been a part of have benefited greatly from EU students, as well as interns and students on Erasmus placement schemes.

Leaving the European Union risks losing some of the brightest minds to other countries.

Leaving the European Union risks losing some of the brightest minds to other countries which still enjoy European funding. Already before the 2016 referendum, the House of Lords warned that “researcher mobility must be protected if UK science and research is to remain world-leading”.

The UK undertakes more mental health studies than any other country in Europe, and my own place of work is the largest institution. However, we do not want UK science to become isolated.

Research into psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience is a collaborative enterprise, one the EU is at the heart of. We cannot allow UK researchers to be sidelined from leading mental health research as a result of Brexit.

Multinational studies are renowned for providing the most valuable and robust research. A multi-nation union that facilitates that is therefore essential for the future for our continent. Let’s fight for our place inside it.

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