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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

The UK desperately needs a breakthrough in R&D, but Europe isn’t the catalyst for change


Perpetual doom and gloom for British science as a result of uncertainty with our relationship with Europe is the mood in the FT this week. The paper recently reported that research and development (R&D) collaboration by British businesses under the EU's research grant scheme has halved since 2016. But contrary to the FT's personal Project Fear agenda, the future British scientific revolution doesn't rest upon Europe.

Source: OECD, Main Science and Technology Indicators, Volume 2019, Issue 2

The scheme which the article speaks of is the EU's Horizon 2020, their financial package aimed at securing Europe's global competitiveness. It was reported that the British-International collaborations under the scheme had dropped from 15,900 to 8,300 over the past 4 years, with the CBI commenting that it was a disappointed at the decrease. While this decrease is disappointing, the implied dependence on EU R&D funding to grow and sustain British innovation is misleading. The lack of investment doesn't stem from Brexit, nor can it be fixed through Horizon.

The simple fact is that the UK is sluggishly behind all of our supposed world equals in R&D with or without EU help. The days are long gone of world leading daring British innovation; we commit only 1.7% of GDP to R&D, 20th in the world, as can be seen in the chart. The UK trails its European neighbours, with Germany at 3.1% and the OCED average at 2.4%. In fact, our spending as a percentage of GDP hasn't increased since 1981, but instead has fallen from 2.0%.

This long-term trend of decline shouldn't come as a surprise. There seems to be never ending news of British industrial names either collapsing or being swallowed up by international firms. The debacle over Huawei's involvement in our critical communication infrastructure demonstrates the dire need for growth in R&D. Yet successive governments since 1981 have failed to alter this course, most recently with the involvement in Horizon 2020. Some still look to Europe, requesting the government do more to encourage collaboration, but as proven in the past this won't amount to the growth that we require. 

Despite what the FT may write, Horizon 2020 simply isn't wide ranging enough. Whilst Remainers will look at the decrease with horror, Horizon 2020 isn't perfect and won't be for a long time. The annual report for the programme stated it clearly: 'the participation of third countries in Horizon 2020 has dropped compared to the previous Framework Programme'. It is these 3rd countries such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan who aren't involved which trailblaze in innovation and development. Our involvement with these countries is crucial to our own technological advancement.  

Our technological advancement can be however promoted through other schemes. Schemes run by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and funds such as the Newton Fund, both British established grant schemes that strive to build innovative partnerships. The UKRI works particularly with the leading innovators to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish, contrary to Horizon 2020. With the Fund for International Cooperation (FIC) of £110m, it has recently started projects on AI with Japan and Canada with further partnerships with South Korea, Singapore and the USA in train.

Source: Statista Research Department, Jan 3, 2011

Whilst the UKRI builds multilateral business relations between Britain and the world leading innovators, the Newton Fund builds partnerships with middle income states, such as Mexico, India and Brazil. The Newton Fund was launched in 2014 with a £735 million investment from the UK up to 2021. With partner countries providing matched resources within the fund, focusing on sustainable development around the world. The edge which the Newton fund has over say Horizon 2020 is its focus on high-middle income states. It is these states which are seen to be the next major world players over the next decade; leapfrogging the European nations.

As data shows the 3 states which were previously mentioned, Mexico, India and Brazil, are slated to be in the top 10 biggest GDPs by 2030. The European Commission itself highlighted that by 2030 only two of the top ten GDPs in the world would be EU members: Germany and France. It is not only important to increase our involvement with the established front-runners such as Taiwan and Korea, but also forming and establishing relationships with these soon-to-be world leading states in development is paramount to Britain's future at the top. If we intend to become a truly Global Britain within the next 25 years, then these relationships are crucial to the future of our innovations and R&D world standing, not our relationship with Europe.

Sources: ONS. Series GLBH, and Commons Library Calculations

Out of this necessity the government has been preparing for the future, publishing the Research and Development Roadmap. Outlining domestic pledges to investment, the Chancellor announced an increase in public investment in R&D reaching £22bn per year by 2024/25. Further, he has committed to reaching the 2.4% OECD average by the same time and setting up a British styled US-ARPA to promote innovation. On top of this, the government pledged to improve higher education and continue to attract top talent from abroad. A factor which can be overlooked at times, but education forms the basis of solid strong future growth as well as sharing expertise with other friendly nations in order to better each other.

This is all a step in the right direction but there is a lack of a firm commitment to seek more international cooperation outside of the EU at the same time. This is represented perfectly in the Roadmap: 'we are seeking to agree a fair and balanced deal for participation in EU R&D'. Whatever the government sees as appropriate to give up in order to participate in Horizon 2020 is yet to be seen. But this type of dubious wording has been seen before in the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol in regard to sovereignty and trade. Given how those two agreements unravelled to reveal their negative effect on the UK, how this commitment and the flimsy commitment to seek global partnerships will pan out remains to be seen.

The British Chamber of Commerce commented that it is vital that more is done to fund cooperation between the UK and other countries. Despite the comment being in relation to Europe, they've perfectly summed up what the UK needs to do. We have already shown our willingness to do just that by increasing our contribution to the WHO 30% over 4 years, making us the largest contributor. Commitment for international cooperation outside of Europe is what the government needs to pledge, especially in the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. So that our R&D can be a part of an all-important international catalyst for innovation, guaranteeing a truly Global Britain in the years to come. 

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