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Keele University shutdown ‘prevents critical research’

Researcher claims labs are being shut down unnecessarily meaning ‘critical’ research cannot be carried out

Keele University has been accused of shutting down “critical research” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chris Exley, a professor in bioinorganic chemistry at the university who is conducting research on human neurological disease and vaccine safety, claims his labs were shut down unnecessarily despite the fact that he and his team members mostly work alone.

“We are not allowed in our building—never mind our labs,” he told Research Professional News. “All science buildings have been shut down while other buildings on campus…remain open.

“We are a small research group, just three of us. We mostly work alone in our own labs with little chance of meeting anyone. We are not in any vulnerable group.”

As a result, he and his team members are unable to continue their research, which Exley describes as “critical”.

“We had experiments involving human cell lines provided by Public Health England ongoing and these experiments were lost and we were forced to freeze our cell lines to use in the future,” he said. “However, it can take at least a month just to get a successful cell line up and running again and so we may not have this opportunity.”

“Two of my group are on short-term contracts that are due to end in the summer,” he added. “If we are prevented from doing our research then not only will we not progress but these individuals will not have a chance to complete their research, without which they have no guarantee of continued employment beyond this summer.”

His concerns follow a warning from the University and College Union about the impact of Covid-19 fallout on temporary and part-time workers in the sector. At least one university, Sussex, has instructed its departments to review, pause or terminate fixed-term contracts to avoid a hit to university finances.

Exley claims the shutdown is contrary to official government advice, which urges employees to work from home “wherever possible” but “if you cannot work from home then you can still travel for work purposes”, and which says that “it is important for business to carry on”.

Meanwhile, science minister Amanda Solloway has written to UK universities and other research institutions urging them to protect science and research “which is considered to be of critical urgency or importance”.

This “may be for medical reasons or for reasons of national security”, she said.

Institutions should also protect science, research or technical work “where the pausing of activity is either not possible or would severely impede research delivery”, she added. This could include “very long-term experiments or projects where the time frequency of observation is critical”.

Exley’s work ticks two of these boxes—it is medical and pausing it would impede its delivery. But he said: “Isn’t all basic research critical?”

He added: “I know that our research is important and I know how difficult it is to get every penny of research funding and I am not happy to see this effort totally wasted.”

Keele University declined to comment.

Has your research been impacted by coronavirus? Please contact sophie.inge@researchresearch.com