Bristol PhD students may have to finish projects at Cardiff Uni as University of Bristol plans to close key research facility

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By Teddy Coward, Co-Editor-in-Chief

A group of Bristol PhD students and early career researchers have had the possibility of completing their studies placed in jeopardy by the proposed closure of the University’s Clinical Research and Imaging Centre (CRIC) at the end of the 2019/20 academic term.

The proposals to close the facility were disclosed in an email sent out on 28th May, in which it stated it had ‘taken the difficult decision to consult with Trades Unions and CRIC staff on the closure of CRIC at the end of this academic year.’

However, only a small number of students were in the email chain and many of the researchers whose projects depend upon using the CRIC say they found out the plans via word-of-mouth.

Jamie Thakrar, a Neural Dynamics PhD student in her final year at Bristol, told Epigram: ‘Closing the CRIC is extremely damaging to our research community but it’s the way that it’s been done without consultation with postgraduate students and other staff that has caused the most uproar.

‘I’ve invested a lot of time and effort and resources into my project, which is a really important study, and lots and lots of other people are also doing really important research and it would be such a shame to lose those projects.’

One option that has been suggested to postgraduate researchers by the University is for them to complete their research projects at Cardiff University’s Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC).

However, such a move would require students to obtain different ethical standards and would be almost four times as costly, owing to the discount Bristol students who use the CRIC receive.

‘We’ve been given this idea that we can use other centres but simply moving all our research to Cardiff is not that simple; there are knock-on repercussions for our participants, ethical implications and extra research costs that will be incurred as a result of having to move,’ Jamie said.

In addition, many of the students have been given grants from charitable research groups and invested many years of research into projects that now may go unfinished.

In one instance, a PhD student in their final year has received a total of around £150,000 from the Wellcome Trust for a research project that may now go unpublished as it has not yet reached its target sample size.

An open letter urging the University to keep the CRIC open has been written to Vice-Chancellor Professor Hugh Brady. So far it has been signed by 466 students, academics and researchers, including over 220 who are either at the University of Bristol or are alumni.

A collection of statements written by students, researchers and academics who will be impacted by the CRIC’s closure has also been gathered by those opposing the plan.

Many of these accounts, seen by Epigram, express confusion about how students’ research projects will proceed - and frustration that students were not consulted about plans to close the CRIC.

For example, Dr. Alfie Wearn, a Postdoctoral Research Associate and former Bristol PhD student, wrote: ‘It goes without saying that many of us are disappointed in the way that we had to find out about this decision. Many of us, myself included, had to hear very much ‘through the grapevine’.

‘Is the expectation now that these projects will simply close, despite huge personal and financial investment in many of them? There is now a huge amount of uncertainty about the future of these projects.

An additional statement from Dr. Hanna Isotalus, a lecturer in Digital Health and Care at Bristol University, reads: ‘it is largely because of this facility that I find myself here in Bristol today. Its planned closure conflicts with the University’s strategy of continued investment in high-quality infrastructure in biomedical sciences.

‘The work I have conducted at CRIC allowed me to secure a lectureship here at Bristol directly after my PhD. This work will also lead to several publications [though] the study in its entirety has not completed yet and without CRIC it cannot complete.

‘The preparation, including getting clinical trial authorisation, took several years.’

The open letter requests that the CRIC stays open ‘at the very least until all current projects have concluded and there is a thorough consultation, involving staff and the research community’ to decide what measures can be taken to make the CRIC more financially viable.

The authors of the letter state that they ‘do not believe the ramifications of this decision to close without any warning on the careers of early career researchers (ECRs) have been considered at all.

‘Many of us, despite being regular users and having registered projects open at CRIC, were not even directly informed and received the news second-hand, through word-of-mouth or an email forwarded on from colleagues who received a communication from the Dean.

‘In addition, no guidance or information has been given on how ongoing projects will be impacted.

‘The staff and users of CRIC deserved much better than to have this news delivered to them in the manner that it has. The mental health impact this decision will have across our research community is a weight the university must realise and bear on its shoulders.’

A meeting of stakeholders such as PhD supervisors and Postgraduate Education leads in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Life Sciences to consult further on the future of the CRIC is due to take place tomorrow.

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Some postgraduate students have asked if they could be present for the meeting though are reported to have been told this would not be possible. Instead, student's views will be represented by PhD supervisors and the education leads in the Health Sciences and Life Sciences departments.

In a statement, Professor Jane Norman, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences insisted that no concrete decision has yet been made and that trade unions, staff and people who use the facility are being consulted.

She added that the CRIC ‘has been running at a loss for a number of years’ and that the University ‘needs to review [the CRIC’s] future’.

‘If a decision is made to close CRIC, we will meet with students individually to discuss the implications for their studies and explore alternatives.

‘One option would be to use the excellent MRI facility in Cardiff (CUBRIC) – which some Bristol researchers already use – or securing access to existing facilities in the city.

‘We fully appreciate the concerns of PhD students who use CRIC and would like to reassure them that the University is fully committed to ensuring that they’re able to complete their research.’

Featured images: Epigram


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