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Innovation, research and the EU

June 20, 2016

As the date of the referendum fast approaches, this is the last in our series of three posts on the Brexit issue.


At Priory Translations we are intimately involved with invention.  Depending on your point of view, our work enables more accurate understanding of inventions and wider dissemination and accessibility of patent subject-matter (our view) or is an unnecessary burden on the patent system and an additional barrier to access (some critics’).


Be that as it may, this post, the last in our series of three on the topic of Brexit/Bremain, looks at the EU’s role in innovation and research in the UK.


It has been said that “The process of human invention is changing. Major technological breakthroughs are less frequently the result of individuals toiling away in their basements and garages; more frequently, they are the work of inventive teams in large corporations or research labs.”[1]  By way of a very unscientific snapshot, this is certainly borne out in our work, in which the number of individuals who are both inventor and applicant has diminished almost to zero over the years.  This reflects the increasingly complex and interdisciplinary nature of scientific and technological research today, in which researchers must collaborate to share intellectual and physical resources with the most appropriate partners, regardless of their location.  Accordingly, greater financial, administrative, physical and organisational support is required than in the past.  “Twenty-first century science often has to go big to go small and increase the resolution of our understandings and capacity. Developing new nano-materials or discovering ever-rarer particles often requires more expensive machinery to establish more extreme conditions.”[2]  In the UK, from 2005 to 2014, 37% of research papers were internationally co-authored, with the top three collaborative partner nations for strength of collaboration being Germany, USA and the Netherlands.[3]


Although the UK contributes more to the EU budget in total than it receives, it is one of the largest recipients of research funding in the EU.  In fact, taking the research, development and innovation funding proportion only, it receives back more than it puts in[4].  As a leading research nation and a full EU member, the UK has an influential voice in the development of EU-wide science policy.  The EU has a total estimated budget of €120 billion to directly support research and innovation activities between 2014 and 2020[5].  During 2007 to 2014, approximately 10% of UK public funding for science came from the EU, and this is increasing[6].  The current principal funding programme, Horizon 2020, has a greater focus on industry and small business innovation than previously, and the UK has so far been allocated more funds under this programme than any other country[7].  To quote Matthew Freeman, cell biologist and head of the Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, writing in The Guardian “The EU directly pays for much UK research and innovation; and because Britain is scientifically outstanding, there is a net financial as well as scientific gain.”[8]


However, it is the freedom of movement and possibilities for collaboration within the European Union that scientists and innovators value the most.  EU structures have prioritised and supported the movement and collaboration of researchers, which has led to the EU now overtaking the USA to produce over a third of the world’s scientific output.  Current visa policies for non-EU nationals are already seen as unduly restrictive to the movement of researchers, and there is concern over the possible loss of free movement within the EU.

Were the UK to leave the EU, it is difficult to see how it would avoid losing ground in research and innovation.  In view of the uncertainty of the economic situation post-Brexit, there is no guarantee that lost EU funding would or could be replaced by the UK government.  In addition, it would be difficult to replicate the resources and expertise currently devoted to science policy-making within the EU.  It might be possible to negotiate participation in EU research programmes with “Associated Country” status, but this would not give the UK any say in setting overall policy and would, to judge by Switzerland’s situation, involve making financial contributions, and agreeing to freedom of movement, both of which are given as pro-Brexit arguments to leave the EU in the first place.  Restrictions on freedom of movement would curb the current dynamic movement of researchers.

To sum up with the UNESCO Science Report – Towards 2030[9]Were the Brexit to become a reality, whatever the post-withdrawal relationship, the UK would lose its driving seat for research and innovation within the EU, which would be a loss for both sides.”




[1] Populism and Patents - The Honorable Kimberly A. Moore
















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