Can we have a serious look at Plan B?

22 November 2021

Although £6.9bn for the UK to associate with the Horizon Europe research programme was allocated in the Autumn Budget, the actual process of signing on the dotted line has become embroiled in the overall political fallout from Brexit. As I mentioned in my recent blog, I rather sit on the fence as to whether association is the best way for the UK to invest that much research funding. Since I’m clearly not as enthusiastic as many, I thought I should set out my concerns. 

I should stress that I believe international science collaboration to be a very good thing – indeed, essential to deliver better and faster research outcomes. We cannot aspire to be an ‘Innovation Nation’ without proper investment in international collaboration.

Science Minister, George Freeman said. “But if the EU decide Northern Ireland Protocol politics stops UK joining Horizon Europe we have a bold Plan B”. Whilst we don’t yet know the details of this Plan B, I’m willing to keep an open mind on what might be the better approach. The UK was a net beneficiary, in terms of cash allocation, from past EU research programmes, but was it a net beneficiary in terms of value captured?

My perspective on this topic is based on my experience coordinating six EU Framework Programme bids (the predecessors to the Horizons Programme) and the projects that resulted from the three bids that were successful; including a large Framework 6 Integrated Project with an overall budget of €23m — herding cats comes to mind.

I have seen first-hand the excellent collaborations and network building that can result from these large research projects, as well as the real impact of more joined up research, development and innovation. I have also seen massive bureaucracy, wasted money and a good many missed opportunities. Often because the research consortium structure was far from ideal.

Despite all the compromises, there are many reasons to like the EU Programmes. They include significant elements of translation science and demonstration of technology — funds for these activities have been, relatively, in short supply in the UK. The contracts are for substantial sums of money, meaning you can assemble teams and get work done. And the EU Commission really listens to sector views on future research topics. All good reasons to want to associate with Horizon Europe.

My concern is illustrated by the fact that in all the bids I was involved in, the largest single budget allocation was to a UK academic institution. I tried to build in as much UK industry participation as possible, but I’m sure you immediately see the problem. A consortium where the largest academic partner and the largest industrial partner were both from the UK was unlikely to be favourably judged in the evaluation process.

So, what happened when a bid was led by a UK academic institution — allocating themselves as much budget as they dared to — was that the largest industrial partner would more than likely be from another member state. For the same reason, obvious UK academic collaborators might well be excluded from the consortium, perhaps becoming competitors.

Clearly, there were often UK industrial partners in any large UK university-led consortium, but they tended to be smaller partners in cash terms, and often SMEs. These smaller partners tended to be ‘service providers’ into the research rather than the businesses that could implement and profit from the research outcomes. A broad generalisation I accept.

On the other hand, a Siemens, Telefónica, Nestlé etc. are probably quite happy to consider joining a consortium led by a top UK University.  You see my concern — where would the value be captured?

I do appreciate it also works the other way round, with Rolls-Royce, BT, GSK or Unilever for example, being invited into bids led by European academic institutions. There are also examples of successful UK business-led consortia, which for the reverse reason, tend to have the largest research base partner outside the UK. There are even some examples of UK businesses using their overseas subsidiaries to lead bids where the largest academic partner is a UK University.

This need to balance the bid participants by geography becomes more of an issue when we know that UK academic institutions have been far more successful in leading bids than UK businesses — and this is not just about quality of bids, it also reflects, in my opinion a relatively low UK business appetite to lead consortia.

To put UK academic success into perspective, from 2007-2013 Framework Programme 7 funding constituted 3.1% of overall UK R&D investment, but for the UK HE sector it was 7.2% of research income.  Universities participated in 60% of all UK bids and received 70% of all funding allocated to the UK. The industry share of participation by country ranked the UK 23rd out of all 27 member states (27 at that time).

It can be argued that the situation was due to lack of industry ambition (or frustration with bureaucracy), rather than our universities being spectacularly good at submitting bids. These figures came from the 2017 BEIS Final Report on ‘Evaluation of UK involvement with the research Framework Programme and other European research and innovation programmes’ that contains a much more detailed analysis. The report identified a low level of positive commercial outcomes for UK businesses, supporting my key concern.

In a nutshell, do we contribute more commercially-exploited knowledge and IP from our academic base to non-UK businesses than UK businesses secure from non-UK partners? I fear that might be the case and I don’t know if the question has been properly researched.

There is a ‘so what?’ counter argument. If we were net financial beneficiaries into high paid jobs in UK academia, then maybe net beneficial impact for non-UK big business is not a big deal. Especially if some of those businesses also manufacture in the UK. Furthermore, when we were all in the same club, building research capacity in newer member states was not necessarily a bad thing. Swings and roundabouts perhaps. However, association agreements include periodic ‘financial corrections’, which I think means we can never again be net cash beneficiaries over the longer term.

So, to put it in dramatic terms for effect: if association to Horizon Europe might mean our academic institutions are effectively UK taxpayer funded for the net benefit of EU businesses, and if, instead of that, we have an opportunity to use the £6.9bn to help build an ‘Innovation Nation’ — maybe we should take a good look at Plan B.

What if there was money available that helped UK businesses to work with the very best partners in international consortia (UK universities are so good they shouldn’t fear being left out). Funding with rules that encouraged participation of academic groups and other industrial partners both inside and outside the EU on equal terms — Canada, Japan or Singapore, for example. Rules where consortia had to contain a UK ‘first-user’ partner might also help towards the UK Innovation Strategy objective of “Ensuring our research, development & innovation institutions serve the needs of businesses and places across the UK.”

Clearly many are wedded to the plan for association and many academic institutions would probably loathe these ideas. There would undoubtedly be significant short-term disruption from any Plan B. Those who say ‘science’ would suffer probably mean that overall output of scientific discovery and invention would fall. They might be correct, but that only brings us back to the key question — what does the UK government expect in return for £6.9bn, just ‘science’ for the world, or also a fair return in terms of UK business innovation?   

If there is an opportunity to change for the better, and still time to give Plan B proper consideration, let’s not blindly walk into the old mechanisms (on poorer terms?). Was mention of Plan B just politics Minister, or can we have a serious look at it?