"The UK's decision to leave the EU has presented the science and innovation sector with its greatest challenge in generations. If we are to confront this challenge effectively so that we protect and enhance science in the UK, it is crucial that the science community's voice is heard now.
We stand at a vital crossroads in the Brexit negotiations. By holding this summit before the next stage of negotiations commence, we can ensure that our priorities are clear and our demands are delivered right to the heart of Government." Norman Lamb MP (Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee.
This quote from Norman Lamb MP (Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee), in the launch documentation for the Brexit Science and Innovation Summit, effectively captures the current fears and hopes of AIRTO, the Association of Innovation, Research, and Technology Organisations, its members, and the 47,000 people whom they employ.
This document has been prepared in response to the call for written evidence to support the Committee’s Summit, which will held 22 February 2018.
It builds on previous submissions made by AIRTO to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee (Commons) in July 2016, the House of Lords Select Committee in September 2016, and the Migration Advisory Committee Consultation in October 2017.
AIRTO has prepared this response on behalf of its members, who operate in the innovation sector in the United Kingdom (UK) and overseas, with extensive links to industry and academia. AIRTO members number more than 60 organisations, employing over 47,000 scientific and technical staff. These organisations work across a wide range of industrial sectors, and are based across the UK with some clustering in London and the South East. They playing a key role in supporting the uptake of innovation by industry.
A brief description of AIRTO, together with contact details, is given at the end of this document.
AIRTO members and the EU
The majority of AIRTO members are strongly linked with the European Union (EU) in the following ways:
- People: A typical AIRTO member will have non-UK EU personnel comprising 15-25% of its workforce. These may be visiting staff (students, researchers on fellowships, partners in EU research projects), or permanent members of staff. They provide a vital, highly-skilled resource which augments or complements that available in the indigenous UK population.
- Funding and Investment: AIRTO members, in a similar way to other parts of the UK’s science and innovation infrastructure, are heavily involved with EU and European programmes. The Framework R&D programmes have developed into the biggest such programmes and support underpinning work. They are a vital part of members’ activities and, in the case of the newer Catapult Centres, this component of their activity is enshrined both in their underpinning modus operandi as described in the Hauser Reports and in their business plans as approved by their core funder, Innovate UK. In other European programmes, such as space, nuclear and life sciences, the UK collaborates from a position of strength as the country with the technology leadership in the subject area. AIRTO members also have direct commercial relationships with EU industry, often catalysed by contacts made in these EU publicly funded programmes.
- Collaborations: Involvement in EU and European programmes involves collaboration with peer groups, complementary organisations and supply chains, as well as being a source of funding support for key research and technological developments. The benefits of such collaborations are significant and in many cases allow AIRTO members to enhance technical capability, broaden their scope of work and increase their levels of influence. This is well recognised within EU partner organisations who are highly supportive of AIRTO members’ continuing involvement in joint collaborations.
- Standards and Regulation: AIRTO members are heavily involved in the development of UK and European standards and regulation, often taking a leading position. They provide accredited testing facilities and act as notified bodies. This ensures such standards and regulations are based on the best research by combining the expertise of leading organisations at a European level. Their involvement promotes the UK’s technical ability (which results in contract work from around Europe and the World) and ensures the UK is not disadvantaged by poorly prepared or commercially biased standards and regulations.
These four areas of activity ensure that AIRTO members keep and build on their world class technical status and add to the UK’s reputation as the best place for research and innovation.
View of current government position and actions
AIRTO members welcomed the government’s Future Partnership Paper “Collaboration on Science and Innovation” and the up-date on the status of the negotiations contained in the “Orderly UK Withdrawal” document. Both of these clearly set out the current position and, in the case of the Future Partnership Paper, the aspirations of the government for continuing collaboration with the EU on science and innovation. These aspirations coincide with those of AIRTO members. However, they are high level aspirations without the degree of detail that gives certainty to where the future lies.
Current effect of Brexit on AIRTO members
The current effects of Brexit on AIRTO members arise mainly as a result of the uncertainty in the science and innovation landscape, although there are already instances of the EU terminating or not renewing contracts with our members for work to develop European standards, testing protocols etc., in anticipation of UK withdrawal in March 2019.
These effects of uncertainty are as follows:
- People: AIRTO members are seeing their permanent EU employees resigning and returning to their home country or to other EU countries. This is occurring at a slightly higher level than observed prior to the referendum vote in 2016, but it is compounded by a significant drop in applications from non-UK EU nationals for permanent employment vacancies, which as a consequence are becoming harder to fill. Applications for temporary posts have not been affected so significantly, but it may be that the real effect of Brexit has not yet been seen on these short-term positions. This effect is expected to become more significant over the next two years. The major current effect on people is a reduction in skilled candidates for jobs at a time of limited availability of such staff from the indigenous population.
- Funding and Investment: The government’s commitment to underwrite UK organisations’ involvement in Horizon 2020 projects until the UK exits the EU is welcome. However, this does not stop EU collaborators from being reticent to involve a UK partner in their proposals. The UK is now sometimes viewed as “an outsider” by those involved in developing consortia and submitting proposals. In other European programmes that involve both grants and procurement contracts (e.g. in the space sector, as per AIRTO’s Letter to Jo Johnson MP, August 2017), the contractual terms now contain new clauses that can be too onerous for UK organisations to accept, because of the potential liabilities that could be imposed if the UK is not a continuing partner in the programme after Brexit. Direct commercial contracts for R&D seem to be largely unaffected in the short-term but, without the catalytic effect of the UK participation in EU collaborative programmes, are likely to be under threat in the longer-term.
- Collaborations: Current collaborations are based on strong technical and organisational links. Again, these seem to be secure in the short-term, but potentially vulnerable in the longer-term if the UK is not involved in the under-pinning EU and European programmes.
- Standards and Regulation: The uncertainty of the UK’s current position is causing significant future issues for AIRTO members. Those that supply significant services to Europe are facing a potential change in their ability to continue with this activity, with no current definition of when the positon will be clarified. This is a threat to their operation and even existence, and also a threat to European systems.
AIRTO members are starting to develop contingency plans in the face of a great deal of uncertainty. A part of these plans, for some organisations, involves assessing whether they can continue to rely on their operations being based solely in the UK. To mitigate the prevailing uncertainty, developing or transferring operations into states that are in the EU may be a necessary strategy, but one that could disadvantage the UK in the medium and long term.
Planned government strategies
- As discussed above, the government’s strategy on EU and European science and innovation programmes is welcome, but urgently needs more detail.
- The government’s initiatives on science and innovation collaboration with China and the US are welcome, but cannot be seen as a replacement for the EU and European programmes if the government’s strategy to remain involved with EU collaborative science and innovation programmes is not realised. AIRTO members already have significant technical links outside of Europe, including with China and the US. It is expected that these will grow, but such growth will inevitably be a gradual process rather than the step change that would be needed to replace UK involvement EU and European programmes.
- There is a natural synergy with European countries in both challenges and objectives that does not always exist with countries outside Europe.
- The government’s commitment to increase the national investment in science and innovation to 2.4% of GDP is welcome. Involvement in EU and European programmes will help reach this target. Replacing EU funding with national funding, in the event of the UK not participating in the continuing programmes, will not result in the realisation of all the current benefits of these programmes.
Immediate actions needed
AIRTO members, and the wider UK science and innovation infrastructure are currently facing challenges presented by the lack of detail about the future relationship with the EU.
Whereas it is accepted that the final details will not be known until the Brexit negotiations are completed, a number of more immediate actions are needed from the government:
- More detail of the current government plans for future involvement in EU and European programmes. Revealing the government’s preferred position is unlikely to have any effect on the overall Brexit negotiation, and will give reassurance of intent both to UK organisations and to their existing and potential EU and European partners.
- Better communication of strategy, plans, and progress. This needs to involve the appointment of a Chief Scientist for the Department for Exiting the EU, visibility of the civil servants involved in the planning in all Departments, and better collaboration with the components of the UK’s science and innovation infrastructure.
- Public commitment to continuing access to skilled EU workers for the science and innovation community in the UK, both for short-term and permanent posts.
- Public commitment to providing the level of current funding, or preferably increased funding, that will allow the UK to participate in the EU and European programmes. If the planned involvement in these programmes is not achieved, there must be a commitment to provide this funding as a national programme.
- The preference would be for the UK to remain a full member of EU Framework Programmes enabling continued involvement in influencing their direction and strategy, rather than simply having a ‘downgraded’ status (consisting of an entitlement only to bid for funding which the UK would be eligible for as a result of paying in a financial subscription).
- Immediate support to the UK organisations that will be needed to handle the UK’s standards, regulation setting, testing, accreditation and product certification once the UK leaves the single Market and Customs Union. The EU is already preparing for this by excluding UK bodies from this kind of work in anticipation and unless the UK takes similar precautionary action the UK will find itself without the capacity to operate such services (including Notified Bodies) on its exit from the EU.
AIRTO is the Association of Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations. Its membership comprises approximately sixty of the principal organisations operating in the UK’s Innovation, Research and Technology (IRT) sector. The IRT sector has a combined turnover of £6.9Bn, employing over 57,000 scientific and technical staff (equivalent to the academic staffing of the Russell Group of universities) and, for comparison, it is significantly larger than the network of Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany both in size and its scope of activities. The sector contributes £34Bn to UK GDP. AIRTO’s members work at the interface between academia and industry, for both private and public sector clients.
Members include independent Research and Technology Organisations, Catapult Centres, Public Sector Research Establishments, National Laboratories, some university Technology Transfer Offices and some privately held innovation companies.
Declaration of Interests
AIRTO Ltd is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No 1217006. Registered office address: National Physical Laboratory, Hampton Road, Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 0LW. AIRTO is a not-for-profit organisation funded by membership subscriptions, and managed under contract by NPL Management Ltd. Please note that this submission does not necessarily represent the views of individual member organisations. The members of AIRTO currently are:
Advanced Forming Research Centre
AMRC with Boeing
C-Tech Innovation Ltd
City University London
DG Cities Ltd
FloWave TT Ltd
Fraunhofer UK Research Ltd
Future Cities Catapult
Health & Safety Laboratory
High Value Manufacturing Catapult
HORIBA MIRA Ltd
HR Wallingford Group Ltd
Institute for Environmental Analytics
Materials Processing Institute
National Innovation Centre for Ageing
National Nuclear Laboratory
National Physical Laboratory
Northern Automotive Alliance
Organic Research Centre
Satellite Applications Catapult
SATRA Technology Centre
Stockbridge Technology Centre
The European Marine Energy Centre
The Scotch Whisky Research Institute
Transport Systems Catapult
University of Greenwich
University of Surrey