30 August 2016 | By Tom Thackray Insight

UK innovation needs clear support

Insight: Tom Thackray, Director of innovation, CBI

Innovation must be a central theme of any post-EU strategy, with protection for funding, skills and international collaboration

The UK’s innovation environment is built upon a world-class science base, with a rich heritage and culture of excellence that has been at the forefront of discovery across all scientific disciplines.

Despite only accounting for 1 per cent of the global population, the UK is responsible for 10 per cent of total global scientific output. But the vote to leave the EU risks affecting that status. It is therefore vital for government and business to work together and develop a plan that protects our reputation and ensures the UK remains both a leading science nation and an attractive destination for talent and investment.

Protecting funding

The recent announcement from Chancellor Philip Hammond on the government underwriting EU funded projects signed before this year’s Autumn Statement is encouraging. This, alongside the prime minister’s comments on the need to maintain our world-class science and research base, provides a degree of clarity for the science community.

The real challenge is for policymakers to set out a roadmap for how science and innovation funding will work post Brexit. We currently receive £850m in research funds from the EU each year. While government contributes 12 per cent of the EU’s budget, we get back 15 per cent of total EU science funding.

Horizon 2020, Brussel’s flagship research programme, has a budget of €80bn – with the UK the second largest beneficiary of the programme. UK SMEs receive more funding from Horizon 2020 than any other country – equivalent to the amount of money they receive from Innovate UK.

Defending the skills base

Developing valuable collaborative networks and accessing skills has been at the heart of our science base. Full membership of main EU funding programmes requires free movement of labour across the Union, while British universities employ around 30,000 scientists with EU citizenship.

Already there is anecdotal evidence suggesting a reluctance from some partners to work with UK based scientists and universities on projects and initiatives. Remaining an open and welcome destination for talented scientists and researchers should form the basis of any new immigration policy.

But not all European managed programmes are directed through the EU – both the European Space Agency and the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) are separate initiatives working with the EU but not controlled by Brussels. British scientists, researchers and companies have played a full role in their development and will continue to in the years ahead. UK universities will still be hotbeds of cutting edge research and scientific excellence outside the EU – the question must be how we can maintain our reputation and play a full role with our EU funded partners and institutions.

In the longer term, with the government openly talking about rejuvenating its industrial strategy, continued investment and development of our innovation eco-system must be part of any new initiative. Existing programmes such as the sector specific Catapult Centres and Knowledge Transfer Networks are established schemes within the innovation support network that already works with business. And to maintain momentum and growth in the economy in uncertain times, innovation must be a central theme of any new strategy.

The CBI and its members recognise both the challenges but also the opportunities leaving the EU presents. The CBI and its members are ready to work with policy makers and our European partners in maintaining our reputation for scientific excellence and international collaboration, while, against a backdrop of uncertainty and disruption, our research and science base continues to flourish.

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