15 Dec 2011   |   News

Cut agriculture for the sake of science

The UK may have used its veto on treaty change, but it will support increased spending on R&D from 2014 – 2020, as proposed in Horizon 2020. Cutting agriculture subsidies could pay for this, Business Minister Vince Cable tells Science|Business

Ministers from both sides of the British coalition government have backed the European Commission’s plan to increase spending on R&D from €55 billion in the current Framework Programme Seven to €80 billion in Horizon 2020.

“Overall, [UK] government policy is to restrict the EU budget, but within that overall budget we would like to spend more on innovation,” Business Secretary Vince Cable told Science|Business. Noting that every EU member state needs fiscal discipline, Cable said money should be spent on science rather than agriculture.

Science Minister David Willetts agreed, telling Science|Business that Europe’s science ministers “had a good discussion” about Horizon 2020 at the Competitiveness Council meeting held after the Commission set out its concrete plans for the research programme on 5 December. These plans put increased emphasis on pulling SMEs into the innovation process, and call for much larger budgets for basic research funded by the European Research Council, and for translational research funded by the European Institute of Technology and Innovation. “There was a lot of support for some of the proposals,” Willetts said.

The Horizon 2020 programme now has to be approved by the European Parliament and by cash-strapped national governments, and it will be encouraging to the Commission that the British government is publicly backing a huge increase in the budget in advance of these negotiations.

A shift to more commercially-minded research

Cable and Willetts made their comments at the launch in London of the UK’s own innovation strategy, which contains a number of measures that are echoed in Horizon 2020, in particular with respect to the lead role that SMEs are to be given in fostering innovation, and the shift towards more commercially-minded research.

In the UK strategy this is highlighted by an increase of £75 million in the budget of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the body responsible for grant funding academic/SME collaborations to help companies develop novel technologies. It is also evident in plans to invest £200 million to set up six so-called ‘Catapult Centres’ to provide a focus for commercialising academic research. The first two of these, in advanced manufacturing and cell therapy, have been given the go-ahead. A third, in offshore renewable energy will get off the ground in 2012.

Prizes to stimulate innovation

Many of the measures in the UK strategy are a continuation of what went before, but there are new elements, such as money to stimulate innovation by competitions and prizes through an Innovation Prize Fund, in which the government will invest £250,000 per annum.

Willetts said “some interesting literature” suggests prizes are a good inducement and spur to innovation. Providing the challenge is framed in the correct way, there can be a huge multiplier effect above the value of the prize money, derived both by commercialising the winning technology, and from the efforts of the losers.

Similarly, Willetts said there is solid evidence for the value of supporting the emergence of technology clusters. One new measure to promote these will to be enable universities that are geographically close, such as the SETsquared grouping in the south and west of England, and the N8 partnership of universities in the north of England , to make joint bids for research council funding.

A further measure to support the growth of clusters comes in the shape of the Launchpad programme, to be run by the TSB, under which SMEs in putative clusters can get grants of £100,000, plus help to attract venture capital and angel investors on the back of this public money. The first Launchpad cluster called Tech City is in London, and now others will be funded to promote media clusters in Bristol and Manchester, the software cluster in Edinburgh, renewable energy in north east England, photonics in Southampton and medical technology in Cambridge.

Life science gets its own strategy

Three days before the launch of the overall UK innovation strategy, UK Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a separate strategy for UK  Life Sciences, which again put the focus on SMEs, with a £180 million three-year programme to bridge the ever-growing funding gap between university research and commercialisation as the centrepiece.

The money will be managed by the Biomedical Catalyst Fund, which will back both academic and commercially-led R&D, providing support from initial research through to commercial development, and will include funding for incubation, and for process and product development.

The Fund will be jointly administered by the Medical Research Council which oversees the university research budget, and the TSB. The money will go to emerging fields including regenerative medicine and personalised medicine, and provide help for SMEs to set up clinical proof of concept studies in partnership with academics. There will be a system for staging investments, meaning companies can go back and apply for further funding for the same project as it progresses along the discovery and development pathway.

Willetts justified having a separate strategy for life sciences, saying the sector faces “a distinctive set of issues” in areas such as linking academic medical research to the National Health Service and the problems pharma companies are facing as drugs go off-patent.

Creating a cohesive innovation system

As with the Horizon 2020 proposals, the UK life sciences strategy and the overall innovation strategy are about finding ways to create a cohesive innovation system from many significant – but currently disparate – resources. And also in common with Horizon 2020, the UK’s approach can be seen as refreshing or putting a new twist on measures that have been garnered from other countries and earlier policies.

One case in point is the Catapult Centres, a concept modelled on Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes and suggested by entrepreneur Herman Hauser of Amadeus Capital Partners in a report to the previous UK government. Another is the revival of SMART awards for small business innovation, which were previously available between 1988 and 2005. “It’s important we provide funding for point-of-concept,” Willetts said.

The strategy hangs on the ability of SMEs to stimulate growth and generate jobs. “Most of this has to be business-driven,” Cable concluded.

Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth: www.bis.gov.uk

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