Turning off the spigot
Thursday morning, the day before the Brexit vote, the UK’s research programs were already starved for funding; government R&D money for robotics was a paltry $200 million.
Friday morning, the day after Brexit, the UK’s R&D funding looks to get worse, and very fast.
The UK contributed nearly $5.8 billion to EU research projects over the past seven years, but received nearly $9.5 billion back from the EU in the same period.
Seems that lucrative ride is now over.
Friday morning, there were a lot of angry EU officials glaring across the Channel. The sound of the spigot closing shut is imminent.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in its “The science budget: First Report of Session 2015-16” begins with a lofty opening line: “The United Kingdom is a science superpower. In terms of both quality and productivity, our research base punches above its weight, setting a worldwide benchmark for excellence.”
One paragraph later in the same report: “The UK has fallen behind its competitors in terms of total R&D investment and this will put UK competitiveness, productivity and high-value jobs at risk if it is not reversed.”
As the Telegraph reported on Friday: The UK spends 1.1 percent of its GDP on R&D – considerably lower than many other nations. For example: “South Korea spent the equivalent of 4.1 percent of GDP on developing new technology and products, Japan 3.4 percent, Germany 2.9 percent, the US 2.7 percent and France 2.2 percent, according to latest OECD data (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The EU average was 1.9 percent.”
The weak 1.1 percent was duly noted in today’s Science | Business: “Science funding from the EU supports world-class science in Britain and masks weak investment from the government.”
“The UK has become highly dependent on EU support for parts of its science base, with potentially damaging consequences if there is a vote to leave on June 23, according to a new report by research software company Digital Science, which tracks the EU contribution to UK research over the past decade.”
The UK risks “losing EU research funding to the tune of $1.36 billion per year. Currently, a quarter of all public funding for research in the UK comes from the European Union.”
Industry R&D would also be left with a big hole in the event of an EU divorce. The engineering multinational Rolls-Royce, for example, received $69.7 million from the EU between 2006 and 2015; telecom giant British Telecom $32.8 million and the BBC $4.1 million.*
*Dollar amounts from above are pre-Brexit
Governments drive the robot revolution
Robotics had been tabbed by the government in 2014 as one of the country’s Eight Great Technologies; allotting $200 million for the robotics and autonomous systems, the “RAS 2020” program.
The Eight Great Technologies (in alpha order):
• Advanced Materials
• Big data and energy-efficient computing
• Energy storage
• Regenerative Medicine
• Robotics and autonomous systems
• Satellites and commercial applications of space
• Synthetic Biology
The ejection seat: Article 50
Whatever deals are in place between the EU and the UK’s R&D programs will remain in place until their terms expire, so too for any foreign technologists working on them, who eventually could be sent packing back to their homelands.
All new funding is in jeopardy. Any new money from the EU to UK research programs, both for academic and industrial labs, will need to be renegotiated during Article 50 (The Lisbon Treaty) time period, which is the formal notification of a Member’s intention to withdraw from the European Union.
It runs for two years, after which the “Treaties that govern membership no longer apply to Britain. The terms of exit will be negotiated between Britain’s 27 counterparts, and each will have a veto over the conditions.”
Today’s Guardian was less than sanguine on the UK being able to fund research, including the Eight Great Technologies. “Lords committee cautions that EU money currently funding UK research is not likely to be replaced by future governments if Britain leaves the union. Scientists in Britain could lose millions of pounds in research funds if the nation leaves the European Union, according to a cross-party group of peers.”
The committee concluded: “In the short term, it’s pretty obvious to us that there would be other claims on the public purse.”
UK robotics, although staffed by immensely talented and dedicated technologists, was already, pre-Brexit, laboring to find its financial way and desperately in need of some breakthrough tech.
Now unfortunately, hope is dimmer. Stephen Hawking is calling it “a disaster for UK science.”
Next up: two years of R&D amid turbulent uncertainty.