Following the referendum on UK membership of Europe, a large number of scientists, engineers and technologists are worried about their access to world-class science and technology collaborations with Europe, and the potential impact on the UK economy of the loss of these programmes. But what is the potential impact on science and technology based SMEs?
I am a longstanding IOP fellow, who has worked in government (with the chief scientist at what was then the Department for Trade and Industry on innovation policy), at the National Physical Laboratory as a researcher and then as a senior manager, helping with its commercial operation as a government-owned large R&D organisation, and now as the director of a micro innovation-consultancy business, Psi-tran. In my 37 years as a scientist and science manager, Brexit is perhaps the most challenging event that I’ve seen for our science- and technology-based country.
My company, Psi-tran Ltd, was set up 12 years ago to raise awareness of the potential of measurement science and technology, and measurement standards and quality systems, to add value to businesses. It deals extensively with the space industry, including ESA, working with partners like NPL and universities, companies and technology-based SMEs to develop many different types of test and measurement systems for spacecraft. It has recently engaged with the EU H2020 programme, in a space-related proposal with partners from France, Germany and the UK.
The immediate impact is over obvious concerns as to how H2020 proposals will be viewed by the EU now that the UK as voted to leave. Despite the assurances from government and from the EU of our continued eligibility, we, like many young scientists, are concerned by the lack of hard information about the future, and how our current and future proposals will be viewed.
You may think that because we work with ESA, and the UK is staying in the ESA programmes, then we have no cause for worry. But this is not true, because two of the largest space programmes, Galileo and Copernicus, are EU-funded, and there is no guarantee that UK space companies will be able to participate in these in the future. The UK currently plays a very important role in these programmes, with small space companies having a big input to the technology and exploitation of the developing services.
So the impact on Psi-tran, and other science-based SMEs is not yet clear. But one company with which we’ve been in touch, which works with the Scottish oil industry, has already reported seeing a fall-off in the number of job applicants from EU countries. Similarly the latest article in Energy Voice warns of effects on the North Sea industries of loss of EU-funded R&D. And the general uncertainty around, and lack of information on, the eventual outcome is a source of great anxiety.
In the longer term, we are concerned about the potential impact of the loss of R&D collaboration with our partners. This can fall into two main categories. The first is the loss of access to major programmes, which shape the future giving essential experience to young researchers at formative stages in their careers such that they return to the UK with greatly enhanced skills and confidence.
The second is the loss of access to larger R&D collaborations, where by being part of a wider EU consortium the UK gains the benefit of a wider skillset and ideas, and the use of facilities it doesn’t have.
Even if the UK government were to replace the funding lost to the UK partners in a proposal, the scale of project they would be able to fund with just their share of the project budget would likely be below critical mass. Such projects may never gain the momentum to make the scientific breakthroughs needed to secure exploitation potential for the UK, and we could lose out to our erstwhile EU partners when it comes to creating jobs and growth in exports from the spin-off from the research.
It is therefore essential that we empower our politicians with a mandate to negotiate the best deal for keeping UK scientists, engineers and technologists in the wide-ranging EU R&D programmes, exchange mechanisms and education schemes.
To that end, I launched a petition on the parliament website, signed in just over a week by more than 28,000 scientists, engineers and likeminded people, to “require that any Brexit deal preserves UK access to EU collaborative R&D programmes”.
I would urge those with an interest in the UK’s science-based businesses to sign the petition to save UK science in EU R&D.
Psi-tran specialises in the space, aeronautical and nanotechnology industries, it supports small business development and spin-off creation (with market research and business planning services for innovative companies). It provides advice to government and industry on science programme formulation, project management and monitoring, technology strategy and research prioritisation.