Birmingham Science City and Europe – future opportunities

Whilst the economic and banking crisis grips Europe it is easy to overlook the opportunities that are likely to arise in the future under the new EU Budget from 2014 for research and innovation. Currently the EU budget for that period is under discussion and, whilst there are major points of contention between member states, this budget as proposed by the European Commission amounts to almost €1trillion over 7 years. What seems unchallenged at the moment is the role of research and innovation and the specific programme proposal titled Horizon 2020. In this video Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission,speaking late last year at the Innovation Union annual conference, makes clear fiscal consolidation should not be at the expense of research, innovation and education.

So how well has Birmingham and the West Midlands done in accessing EU funds for research and innovation to date? The story is mixed. Birmingham Science City has been an important vehicle in helping to deliver ERDF funding for research and innovation.

From the outset BSC levered significant EU investments, particularly for demonstrators, including the Science City Research Alliance between Warwick University and Birmingham Universities. Overall £44m WM ERDF has been committed to date for investment in demonstrators – of which about a third has been through Science City Projects.

Progress has been less impressive on accessing the competitive funds under FP7 and the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP) programmes. Figures have consistently shown that the West Midlands has not achieved what its population share would imply. Warwick and Birmingham Universities have accessed significant resources but elsewhere performance has been patchy; and even with the region’s best Universities they have more to do compared to our UK and EUcompetitors.

The new budget proposals for Horizon 2020 – which is a combination of the existing FP7 RTD programme, Competitiveness and Innovation Programme and the European Institute for Innovation and Technology – shows a significant increase planned, from €50bn to €80 billion.  This offers a great opportunity.

Under the Horizon 2020 proposals there is:

o A dedicated budget of € 25bn for top level scientific research in Europe, including an increase in funding of 77% for the very successful European Research Council (ERC).
o Strengthening of industrial leadership in innovation with an € 18bn budget. This includes major investment in key technologies, greater access to capital and support for SMEs.
o Provision of € 32bn to help address major concerns shared by all Europeans such as climate change, developing sustainable transport and mobility, making renewable energy more affordable, ensuring food safety and security, or coping with the challenge of an ageing population.

This is combined with a major simplification exercise. This new programme will tackle societal challenges by helping to bridge the gap between research and the market by, for example, helping innovative enterprise to develop their technological breakthroughs into viable products with real commercial potential. This offers real potential for growth for the West Midlands given our research base and our entrepreneurial skills.

The future of ERDF is more complex and will depend on the outcome of the Budget negotiations and on how the UK Government decides to manage the funds. The European Commission, however, is clear that innovation and future looking activity will play an important part in the new structural fund programmes. Of 11 priority themes chosen by the Commission at least seven will be of interested to Birmingham Science City and its members.

(1) strengthening research, technological development and innovation;
(2) enhancing access to and use and quality of information and communication
(3) enhancing the competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises,
(4) supporting the shift towards a low-carbon economy in all sectors;
(5) promoting climate change adaptation, risk prevention and management;
(6) protecting the environment and promoting resource efficiency;
(7) promoting sustainable transport and removing bottlenecks in key network

and there is a clear focussing within these priorities; so 80% of ERDF resources will need to be spent on 1) strengthening research, technological development and innovation, 2) enhancing the competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises and 3) supporting the shift towards a low-carbon economy.

So what for the future? Birmingham Science City could play an increasing and a necessary a role as other Innovation and European structures have withered in the region. I outline actions that would help access resources – largely but not exclusively from Horizon 2020.

What is clear that key Universities in the region will continue to access significant levels of these resources. They are also planning to improve their performance under the new programme. This is really important for the region. What crucially needs to happen as well is that others need to start to get into the act:

Greater Collaboration. Expertise is in short supply and resources to pay for such expertise are equally short. Already a group chaired by the University of Birmingham meets regularly to discuss aspects of this funding agenda. This group could do more, perhaps with support through Birmingham Science City and the LEPs. BSC must champion innovation to the LEPs and the specific role of EU funding. One approach taken by Birmingham City Council is to meet potential partners from the HE sector regularly to try to tie in the local Universities with the research and service needs of the local authority. This approach could be replicated at LA or LEP level.

European Expertise. Birmingham City Council has decided to take over the West Midlands Councils’ Brussels Office. This is to be run as a partnership operation. This office and the expertise there and the networks that operate in Brussels such as the ERRIN network are very important to utilise. So participation in this office is to be encouraged.

Building on what exists. The region is lucky enough to be part of the Climate Knowledge Innovation Community. This KIC will be funded significantly up to 2020 and this should a first port of call for those institutions interested in innovation and climate change; the region should seek to maximise its share of the KIC’s resources.

Growing new Centres of expertise, eg our Science Parks. It is important to build on what we have in the region and what is clear we have a range of Science Parks such as Birmingham Science Park Aston , Coventry University Technology Park and Wolverhampton Science Park which are in daily contact with cutting edge SME’s. We need to encourage greater links between them and the region’s Universities to increase their expertise in such funds. Similarly we need to encourage more of the Post 92 Universities to target these funds. Both of these, the Post 92 Universities and the Science Parks have exemplars when it comes to accessing ERDF (main programme and Interreg) and could easily branch out to access elements of Horizon 2020 with support.

digital plaza

More use of Social Media to share best practice and to publicise funds availability. Time is precious and we should explore fully the potential for social media to share information and opportunities.

And on the ERDF programme despite the uncertainty around the managing arrangements and its scale Birmingham Science City should play a key role in developing appropriate documentation for the future ERDF programme(s) however they are configured.

Patrick Willcocks , Freelance European and International Urban Affairs and Funding Adviser