UK research laboratories fear supply shortages after Brexit

UK universities and research institutes drawing up contingency plans for chaotic departure from European Union

January 24, 2019
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Some of the UK’s biggest university laboratories and research institutes have expressed concerns that they could face supply shortages in the event of a chaotic Brexit.

With the clock ticking down to Britain’s deadline to leave the European Union on 29 March, scientists have acknowledged that their supply needs will probably be a low priority behind food and medicines if Brexit causes complications with the import and export of goods.

A number of Russell Group universities told Times Higher Education that they were in the process of drawing up emergency plans, including the possibility of stockpiling supplies such as reagents.

The universities of Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Warwick, plus UCL and Imperial College London, said that they had taken steps to review their supplies, for instance by asking departments to conduct risk assessments based on which items were most at risk should supplies be disrupted.

Maggie Dallman, vice-president (international) at Imperial, said that the institution was working “to prepare contingency plans for the impact of different Brexit scenarios on areas such as our supply chains.”

A Nottingham spokeswoman said that the university was “stepping up its preparation for the UK leaving the EU without a legal framework in place” including “ensuring the preparedness of our supply chains to continue to provide research materials, goods and services”.

A Newcastle University spokeswoman said that the institution was awaiting feedback from department coordinators on “what impact a no-deal Brexit will have in their relationships with companies, partners [and] collaborators…They have also been asked to provide a list of any business critical supplies or services,” she said.

Sarion Bowers, policy lead for the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire, said that one key problem was that laboratories often lacked the physical capacity to stockpile.

The Sanger, for one, works “near capacity” in terms of storage, she explained. “It’s not a trivial situation,” she said. “We have spoken to our suppliers about our concerns and they are in the process of stockpiling.”

Dr Bowers said that, as one of the larger consumers in the UK, the Sanger’s laboratories were better placed than most, but “the situation is slightly precarious in that we are relying on our suppliers not to have issues”.

On a practical scale, Dr Bowers said that most labs relied heavily on reagents, such as sequencing reagents used by Sanger for each experiment. If there were a shortage, projects could be delayed, she warned, which could in turn have “devastating” effects on UK science and healthcare.

“Brexit doesn’t represent a good deal, regardless of a no-deal outcome,” she warned. “If it goes on for weeks, it will be a national emergency.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Lab suppliers are ‘stockpiling’

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