The significance of EU research funding programmes to UK businesses has so far received little attention but a recent keynote speech from the prime minister was very encouraging, writes Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive Hayaatun Sillem
On 21 May I found myself on a train to Macclesfield with a bevy of other stakeholders from the world of science and research, including the science minister and business secretary, all heading off to hear the prime minister give a speech on science and the Industrial Strategy at Jodrell Bank.
A prime ministerial speech focused entirely on science is a sufficiently rare event to render the very fact that it is happening as significant as the words spoken. Happily, there was much to applaud. Firstly, I was delighted to hear the PM refer explicitly to engineers and innovation, alongside scientists and research. Secondly, the speech positioned science and engineering firmly at the heart of the Industrial Strategy, acknowledging the role of entrepreneurs and business in delivering the benefits associated with research. Thirdly, she set out a vision that was both ambitious and inclusive, stating: “Our challenge as a nation, and my determination as prime minister, is not just to lead the world in the fourth industrial revolution – but to ensure that every part of our country powers that success.”
Perhaps most notable of all was the impassioned finale of the speech in which she stated for the first time that the UK would seek full association with the excellence-based European science and innovation programmes – including the successor to Horizon 2020 and the Euratom Research and Training Programme, the primary vehicle through which the EU funds civil nuclear research. A few days later, the Government added further colour to this high-level aspiration by releasing the slides that they had presented to European Commission negotiators, setting out the key elements of their proposed future partnership for research and innovation, including the possibility of an ambitious, and unprecedented, Science and Innovation Pact.
Interestingly, the presentation hints at a willingness to make concessions. For example, it states that in the context of these programmes, the UK “will respect the remit of the CJEU [European Court of Justice], where relevant” and acknowledges that any Science and Innovation Pact would have to be “underpinned by wider agreements and arrangements on cross-cutting issues such as data sharing and protection, researcher mobility and intellectual property”. The presentation ends by throwing down the gauntlet to the Commission to come to an early agreement on this.
Over the past few months, the Academy has been exploring the significance of EU research and innovation funding programmes to UK businesses. This topic has received far less attention than the significance of these programmes to UK academia, and we organised a roundtable in March for science minister Sam Gyimah to hear directly from businesses and entrepreneurs about European collaboration. The discussion highlighted the fact that many UK businesses, large and small, have both extracted important benefits from accessing EU programmes and played influential roles in shaping European research and innovation agendas across a range of sectors and disciplines.
This is reflected in the data, which show that UK business is consistently highly engaged across all industrially relevant areas of the EU research and innovation framework programmes. The UK currently ranks fourth of all 28 EU member states for the number of business participations in Horizon 2020, with support for SMEs of particular importance. SMEs receive the majority of funding awarded to UK businesses and the UK is continually one of the top-performing countries in SME-specific schemes.
Businesses say the benefits of participation go far beyond access to funding, providing important opportunities to build trusted relationships with international partners, whether through formal collaborations, participation in networks or across supply chains. Other distinctive features of EU research and innovation support from the perspective of business include the scale of support on offer, in terms of both budget and number of partners; the availability of support across the full spectrum of research and innovation; the breadth of sectors that are supported; and the long-term nature of the support, which is regarded as being less subject to short-term changes than the UK’s national provision.
However, UK business performance in Horizon 2020 has recently fallen, with the UK slipping from second position in September 2016 to its current fifth position in terms of funding received by business. While UK businesses that are already established partners in EU programmes continue to be involved, they are receiving fewer new approaches to join collaborations, and businesses without prior experience of EU programmes are finding it more difficult to engage.
The response of the Commission’s negotiating team to the UK’s proposals was said to be encouraging, and science and innovation collaboration is widely regarded as one of the least controversial elements of our future partnership with the EU. Time will tell whether these positive signals will translate into early agreement on a Science and Innovation Pact, or whether the goodwill on both sides will be insufficient to outweigh the politics and complexity of the wider negotiations.