By Professor Nick Wright, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Newcastle University
The North of England has a proud tradition of innovation that is not just historical but thriving in the present. Companies based in the region continue to develop new products and services that match anything in the world. But we know that fresh challenges lie ahead with increased competition from emerging countries as they develop – for example – their science and engineering capabilities. We see high levels of investment in countries such as Singapore and China in industrial sectors that are crucial for the UK economy. It is crucial therefore that the North continues to innovate so that our companies thrive and provide employment.
The commonest generator of innovation is a technical advance or new insight – perhaps a new chemical process or some development in advanced robotics. These advances usually arise out of a research program or collaboration often involving more than one company and more often than not, a university.
The UK has long understood that innovation is also an international game and has developed long-standing international programs with collaborators in the US, Commonwealth countries, Japan and of course the EU amongst many others.
This is simply a recognition that, whilst the UK has a lot of good ideas, it does not have them all. Companies need access to the best ideas in the world and sometimes need to be able to bring key people to the UK to create new jobs here.
Currently, UK companies access the majority of European collaborations through EU-wide programmes, but in the post-Brexit landscape, these partnerships are under threat. While membership of the EU is not always necessary to participate in these programmes, because they are generally run over a number of years the uncertainty following the decision to leave the EU creates a strong dis-incentive for UK participation in such projects. There is already some evidence that UK researchers and companies are being quietly dropped out of plans for new activities.
It is vital for the Northern economy and our proud history of innovation that the UK continues to participate in these EU programmes – just as we do with the US and other technologically advanced countries. The region must remain somewhere that doesn’t just trade with the world but actively seeks out new collaborators.
As Chris Wilkinson, Chief Technology Officer, at one of the North East’s leading companies, SMD, says: “SMD has benefitted strongly from participating in EU funded research. We fully respect the UK democratic decision to leave the EU but we hope that the UK can continue to collaborate in EU research programs like many non-EU countries do now”.
The UK government therefore needs to make three key commitments urgently – to state publically that the UK wishes to continue in EU innovation and research programs, to guarantee that any interruptions in funding caused by the transition will be honoured by the UK, and that the UK will continue to welcome EU experts who come here to contribute to our science and innovation community.
We can make any new arrangement work but we need to remove the uncertainty that has followed the result of the referendum. Innovation is the lifeblood of our economy, and our companies and universities need to be involved in European innovation and research. These three simple commitments will provide the necessary reassurance to maintain UK involvement in these vital activities and enable us to compete in the new, post-Brexit world.