THE UK government has launched an inquiry as to its relationship between UK science and innovation, and its membership of the EU.
The House of Lords has invited industrial experts to assess their positions on the UK in the EU and report on whether potentially leaving the EU would help or hinder UK science. Four industry experts were interviewed in the latest session, and they all agreed that the UK R&D industry would benefit from remaining in the EU.
Evidence was heard in two sessions. The first featured David Hughes, global head of technology scouting at agricultural R&D Company Sygenta, and Steve Bates, CEO of the Bioindustry Association.
Bates is of the belief that UK small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the bio and pharmaceuticals industry benefit from using the EU innovations funding body, Horizon 2020. Despite criticisms that Horizon 2020 has been difficult to extract money from because of bureaucracy, Bates said SMEs are more willing to go through a lengthy funding process.
He said, “SMEs perhaps are not as lucky with opportunities to get money; getting money for early-stage medical research is particularly risky and they do struggle to attract private investment, therefore Horizon 2020 is seen by many members as a useful component.”
Hughes was more critical of Horizon 2020 as larger UK corporations have greater access to UK research councils and Innovate UK that require less paperwork to apply for funding. He attributes Horizon 2020’s skew toward awarding funds to larger corporations of other European countries as they do not have as many internal funding schemes of innovation.
Hughes also criticised the EU regulatory commission. He believes that EU regulations regarding the restrictions on genetically modified (GM) crops are politically motivated instead of scientifically motivated.
He said, “For agricultural technologies – at least, some of them – the regulatory systems that are defining those technologies in Europe are not fit for purpose. They are scientifically unjustifiable and dysfunctional.”
Despite his criticisms, Hughes stated that the UK would benefit from remaining in the EU as the UK provides a “rational” voice inside the regulatory legislation process. He believes that the cost of running a separate regulatory system would incur significant cost, and would create significant trading issues with Europe. He believes the best option would be to remain in the EU and use the UK’s influence to lobby for legislative change within the established system.
The second session featured John Latham, board member of Innovate UK, and vice-chancellor at Coventry University, and Felicity Burch, senior economist at EEF – the manufacturers’ organisation.
Burch testified that the free movement system of the EU enabled manufacturers and engineering firms to have a greater scope of collaboration. Multinational firms are able to take advantage of temporary skill sets for weeks at a time without having to apply for full work visas.
Speaking to the European support system of free movement, and funding systems such as Horizon 2020, she said, “I think for business, certainly from a science and innovation perspective, Europe is reasonably well understood. It is quite a testament to the framework programmes that European support is one of the areas of innovation support that manufacturers are most aware of.”
Latham argued that in terms of climate change, healthcare development and water and food security, the EU could be doing more to cooperate with the UK to address the issues. However the UK does work closely with other European countries on these problems via the UN.
Latham said the EU regulations on climate change are the tightest in the world, which may have decreased production and innovation from businesses that may cause pollution, however he said other nations outside the EU are considering similar regulations, and EU companies that already comply will have a competitive advantage elsewhere in the world.
The inquiry into the relationship between EU membership and the effectiveness of science, research and innovation in the UK is still open and ongoing. David Cameron, the UK prime minister is currently renegotiating the UK’s terms of membership, and could hold an “in-out” referendum as early as 23 June.
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