Post-Brexit Britain: Why cross-border collaboration is key for maintaining & boosting competitiveness

To say Brexit has generated a lot of uncertainty and speculation in recent months is an understatement, with most sources tending to talk as though it’s a done deal these days.

In parallel, in a strategic, but perhaps defensive move, the UK Government has announced huge new budgets for UK R&D and innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which is part of its overall Industrial Strategy.

It’s envisaged that this fund will address future industry needs and consider potential new markets that’ll deliver economic impact, jobs and growth across the country. Programmes will be industry-led and powered by multi-disciplinary research and business-academic collaboration.

This is, of course, welcome news and the intention is clear, necessary and well-founded. But isn’t there a crucial element missing here?

What about cross-border collaboration?

At a time when Brexit dominates the daily headlines, but uncertainty reigns, and probably will for a fair few years to come, there seems to be a bit of a void surrounding this pretty fundamental question mark.

R&D is all about going above and beyond what you can do by yourself by collaborating with external partners and experts, confronting ideas and opening up to new sectors and/or horizons.

Innovation thrives in an open environment.

You only have to compare the image of the lone inventor striving away in their workshop with their own convictions and frustrations with the open space innovation hubs where materials scientists can meet with IT and energy specialists in collaborative workspaces to develop, for example, next generation solar panels.

Furthermore, companies have been overcoming R&D and market challenges by sourcing external collaborations, ideas, knowledge and new skills or technologies from outside their organisation for decades. In fact, such is the effectiveness of this collaborative model, that it’s been replicated at regional, national and even international level since the Second World War.

Collaboration involves more than just working alongside somebody else – it involves actively participating, communicating and sharing ideas. Indeed, cross-border collaboration goes hand-in-hand with innovation

A case in point is Belgium, a small EU country, even by comparison to the UK, but with strong universities and a thriving entrepreneurial culture. At a recent meeting of the Belgian Business Federation (FEB), the message was clear – if Belgium wants to fully grasp the big opportunities afforded by innovation, it must focus on collaboration across company borders, as well as sector, regional, national and cultural boundaries.

The FEB’s discussions concluded that some of the barriers were almost self-imposed and existed, above all, in people’s heads or on paper. Given that the UK is second only to Germany in winning European funding from Horizon 2020, it perhaps cannot be said that the UK currently suffers from administrative barriers or a doubting attitude when it comes to science, entrepreneurship and business.

At least up until now.

But is Brexit’s rhetoric and spin starting to irrevocably build up these very barriers once again in political minds? And, mechanistically, will this then trickle down the post-Brexit policies to a fully navel-gazing, internalised, limited and isolated system? Unfortunately, in this worst-case scenario, the powers-that-be could throw as much money as they want at UK innovation, it would be in part destined to failure.

The most successful businesses and entrepreneurs are those who cross borders and break down barriers, whether they might be company-based barriers, sectoral, regional, national or cultural boundaries.

Planning for a post-Brexit economy must not neglect this essential dimension.

The UK must seek to keep these options open with its European neighbours with whom we have built up strong R&D relationships and cross-border collaboration over the last 70 years.

And we should increasingly push those borders further out and create more bilateral links, for example, with China, who’s widely expected to have the second largest national R&D budget in the world by 2020 and forecast to overtake the USA’s number one spot in 2022.

China is R&D active in areas such as high-speed rail, space exploration and solar energy, focusing on green energy or social challenges in the coming years. Its ageing population and fast-expanding urbanisation means that health and food security are key areas for China in the near future. These are two areas where the UK already excels, and as the old adage goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

So yes, funding UK research, development and infrastructure is important to maintain skills and boost the economy. But that’s only one half of the story. Cross-border collaboration is the other half. It’s an essential course of action to maintaining UK competitiveness, accessing complementary or new skills and having a joint hand in shared ideas, projects and intellectual property on the international stage in the future.

Let’s hope that ten years down the line, UK companies and entrepreneurs aren’t discussing where things went wrong. And that they’re not bemoaning the political and administrative barriers or self-imposed isolation for a downturn in the economic or social impacts of their innovation efforts.

About the author

Dr Caroline Elston-Giroud is based in the Ayming London office and heads up the UK Grants team. She has a PhD in Biology-Biochemistry and over 10 years’ experience managing collaborative scientific projects. Caroline has been involved with over 100 projects across the FP6, FP7 and H2020 funding programmes.

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