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EU innovation leaders hope ‘disastrous’ end to collaboration avoidable

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Speaking to E&T at the European Institute for Innovation & Technology (EIT) Innovation Forum in Budapest, Hungary, senior figures in the European research and innovation community expressed concern about ongoing Brexit uncertainties, and hope that Brexit would not disrupt EU research and innovation programmes.

The EIT is an independent EU organisation dedicated to helping universities and businesses work together across the continent to encourage technological innovation; the initial concept for the institute was motivated by the hope of creating a European counterpart to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Since its launch 10 years ago, the EIT has established six “innovation communities” focused towards technological innovation in areas of social importance. With the UK due to separate from the rest of the EU in March 2019 and no Brexit deal yet on the horizon, some EIT leaders are privately concerned.

The UK government has pledged to replace some funding for research projects submitted before March 2019 in the case that Horizon 2020 (the EU’s major ongoing research funding program) funding becomes inaccessible. However, there remains significant uncertainty about the future of research and collaboration between the UK and the EU27, particularly with regards to EIT projects involving UK-based partners.

“It is difficult to make a plan because we do not know the outcome [of negotiations] and we do now know what he rules will be for funding after Brexit,” said Martin Kern, interim director of the EIT. “The innovation communities that have participation in the UK are very much aware of that and are already thinking how that may affect their business but at this stage we cannot give them any final advice.”

Filip Fontaine, CEO of EIT Food, commented in a personal capacity that he expected that a partnership would be retained between the UK and EU, and that he did not believe Brexit would “cut down all relations”. Diego Pavia, CEO of EIT InnoEnergy, said that there was no way to predict the outcome of ongoing Brexit negotiations, and that he future of the UK within the European technology and innovation ecosystem was entirely in its own hands.

“The British partners we have are excellent innovators,” Diego Pavia, CEO of IET InnoEnergy, told E&T. “It would be their call to decide whether they want to play with the rules and remain like today, or not.”

Meanwhile, CEO of EIT Health Jan-Philip Beck – who personally believes that Brexit is a “very bad idea” and comments that he “[has not] heard a single person who says it will have a positive impact” – has encouraged British partners to continue participating in EIT projects in the hope that UK participation in EU research programmes will continue following Brexit. Although he believes it would be “foolish” to ignore the possibilities of a hard or no-deal Brexit breaking down research relationships, he commented that it was important not to render Brexit a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

“Our partners in the UK are extremely important to us in Europe, so we are motivating them to continue to participate in projects, and to continue to submit new ideas for projects going forward. There’s a risk there and everybody is aware of that,” said Beck. “We do hope that the UK government and the EU find a way to maintain the UK’s participation in the programmes. We don’t shut down our UK node now, because we believe [the UK’s withdrawal from the programs] might not happen and if it does, we’ve lost our network.”

“For research and innovation, it would of course be the best outcome if there was full participation and all entities were in the Horizon Europe program [the next major EU research funding program]. I believe that would mean the UK would need to make contributions and would have the opportunities to apply for grants,” Beck said. “There is so much capacity, so much knowledge and experience and such a good track record in European participation that it would be really disastrous to rip that apart.”

“I believe our community is something that sees huge value not just in European integration, but in international integration, and that’s what science and innovation is about,” Beck told E&T. Speaking in a personal capacity, Pavia agreed, commenting that is a “no brainer” that the best possible outcome of the Brexit negations would be no Brexit, adding that: “the world is a global world”.

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