Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.


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Denmark’s digital ambassador: should the UK be following suit?

 

By Steven McGinty

On 26 January, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that they would be appointing the world’s first ‘digital ambassador’ to act as the nation’s representative to major technology companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

At a conference on the future of the Foreign Service, the Foreign Minister, Anders Samuelsen, explained that:

Denmark must be at the forefront of technological development. Technological advances are making such a great impact on our society that it has become a matter of foreign policy. I have therefore decided to announce the appointment of a digitisation ambassador.

In a follow up interview with Danish newspaper Politken, Mr Samuelsen expressed his belief that multinational technology giants “affect Denmark just as much as entire countries”. He highlighted the examples of Apple and Google whose market values are so large that if they were countries they would only narrowly miss out from inclusion in the G20 – the global forum for cooperation between the world’s 20 major economies.

As a result of this economic strength, together with tech firms’ impact on the everyday lives of citizens, Mr Samuelsen argues that the technology sector should be treated as a form of ‘new nation’, which Denmark must develop closer relationships with.

Cooperation between nation states and the technology sector

Technology companies are becoming involved in activities that were once reserved for nation states. For example, Mr Samuelsen’s Liberal party accepts donations in Bitcoin – an online currency which challenges the state’s role as the only issuer of legal tender. And Microsoft have signed a partnership agreement with the French Ministry of Education to provide teacher training, in order to prepare teachers for running special coding classes.

The technology industry argues that it is better placed than national governments to provide effective digital services, at cheaper prices. In terms of national security, computer engineering expert and academic, Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, argues that this is probably the case. Mr Ganascia highlights that Google and Facebook have vast image databases that enable them to use facial recognition software far better than any national security service. Therefore, countries have started working with technology companies on a variety of crime and public safety issues.

Citizens are also spending greater amounts of time on social media platforms. In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr Samuelsen stated that more than half of the world’s data has been created in the past two years (much of this from major platforms such as Facebook). This trend has implications for the privacy of citizens and the spreading of false information, a phenomena that has been labelled ‘fake news’. These issues are fundamentally important for citizens and nation states, and are likely to increase cooperation between countries and the technology sector.

Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs

Although Denmark will be the first country to introduce a digital ambassador, another government has made a similar appointment. In January, Dr Tobias Feakin was appointment as Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. His role focuses on cyber-security, but also includes issues such as censorship and promoting internet access. At this stage, it’s unclear whether Dr Feakin will have direct contact with technology companies and whether this relationship will involve discussions over economic issues such as taxation.

Is a digital ambassador necessary?

Not everyone, however, is buying into the appointment of a government representative focused solely on digital issues. Technology journalist, Emma Woollacott, believes that it’s a ‘terrible idea’.

According to Ms Woollacott, Denmark already has a good relationship with technology companies, highlighting that Facebook has recently announced plans to build a new data centre in Odense, creating 150 new permanent jobs. These views may have some merit, as Mr Samuelsen has confirmed that the deal between the Foreign Ministry and Facebook was the result of three years of behind-the-scenes work.

Ms Woollacott also argues that Denmark is setting a worrying precedent by equating a private company to a nation state.  In her view, the importance of the technology sector could have been acknowledged through hiring knowledge staff, rather than granting it a ‘unique political status’.

However, Professor Jan Stentoft, who researches the insourcing of technological production to Denmark, believes creating the ambassadorial post is a good idea. He explains:

We have much to offer these companies, but Denmark is a small country, and we obviously need to make ourselves noticed if we are to attract them to the country.

Marianne Dahl Steensen, CEO of Microsoft Denmark, also welcomed the creation of a digital ambassador position, but did acknowledge that the company ‘can hardly be equated with a nation’.

Should the UK introduce a digital ambassador?

By introducing a digital ambassador, Mr Samuelsen is taking a pragmatic approach to ensure Denmark is a key player in the international digital economy, as well as attempting to manage the impacts of an increasingly digital society.

Although appointing an ambassador for the technology sector poses philosophical and ethical questions, the UK should closely monitor how this new role develops and the potential benefits (and challenges) it brings for Denmark. In particular, if the new role is able to improve dialogue between technology companies and the security services on matters such as privacy, or help address the sector’s need for digitally skilled workers, then maybe introducing a digital ambassador is something worth exploring.


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Gigabit cities: laying the foundations for the information society

Man sitting at a desk, with stars and nebula's behind him

By Steven McGinty

According to the Foundation for Information Society Policy (FISP), an independent think tank, London’s poor broadband infrastructure will threaten the capital’s ability to compete with other global cities in the future.

David Brunnen, FISP member and an independent telecoms infrastructure expert, explains that although demand for broadband is growing rapidly, the capital still relies mostly on networks of copper wires, which Tech City have described as ‘not fit for purpose’.

The solution, the foundation advocates, is to create a new infrastructure agency, Digital for Londoners (DfL), to ensure that London becomes a ‘Gigabit City’ by 2020.

What are gigabit cities?

In simple terms, gigabit cites provide citizens, business and governments with access to gigabit internet services (1,000 megabits per second or higher). By replacing old copper cables for pure fibre infrastructure, cities can enable public services to take advantage of technology, support businesses to innovate, and improve the lives of citizens. As US President Barack Obama explains, ‘it’s like unleashing a tornado of innovation’.

In the UK, CityFibre, is the main provider of Gigabit Cities. Their network covers 40 cities, including Glasgow and Bristol, across major data centres and busy internet traffic points, and provides 260,000 businesses and 3.7 million homes with gigabit broadband.

On 22nd September 2016, Northampton became the latest UK gigabit city. In an agreement between CityFibre and dbfb, a Northampton-based business internet service provider, businesses will now receive internet speeds of up to 100 times faster than the UK’s average. Paul Griffiths, from Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce, highlights that this investment will play an important role for start-up businesses competing globally.

The initiative will also help Northampton County Council achieve their target of making gigabit broadband available, countywide, by the end of 2017.

Chattanooga

In 2010, Chattanooga, Tennessee, became one of the first cities to make gigabit connectivity widely available. Its mayor, Andy Berke, has described its introduction as a significant source of the city’s economic renewal.

Gigabit broadband has allowed a tech industry to emerge from a city more commonly associated with heavy manufacturing. Tech companies and investment have been drawn by the ‘The Gig’ – the local name for the network – resulting in the conversion of former factory buildings into flats, open-space offices, restaurants and shops. In the past three years, the city’s unemployment rate has dropped from 7.8% to 4.1%. The mayor has also linked the city’s wage growth to jobs in the technology sector.

‘The Gig’ was funded by a combination of public and private investment. EPB, the city-owned utility company, borrowed $219 million and received a $111 million grant from the US Government. This government-led approach has given Chattanooga broadband speeds greater than Google Fibre, a major gigabit broadband provider. Wired magazine suggests that government involvement raises expectations, and encourages commercial providers to improve their infrastructure.

Stokab, Stockholm

The Stockholm city government have one of the oldest gigabit strategies, founding the private company, Stokab, to deploy and manage their city-wide fibre network in 1994. Stokab was created to help the city benefit from the new digital era by limiting multiple network deployments, and by stimulating the technology sector.  The end-to-end fibre broadband network serves 700 service provider businesses and connects 90% of residential premises.

The gigabit network has provided a wide variety of economic benefits, including:

  • becoming a catalyst for the technology sector (The Kista Science Park has over 1000 technology businesses, with 24,000 employees)
  • creating growth and jobs valued at €900 million
  • providing low cost broadband services to business – through increased competition – has resulted in an estimated €8.5 million worth of savings
  • increasing housing values by €200 million and rental values by €3.5 million per year

Digital inclusion

Although gigabit broadband could create limitless opportunities, it also has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities. Citizens, and even small businesses, could lose out if they don’t have the skills or technologies to access the internet.

Salford Council realises the important role technology plays in creating vibrant communities. As part of their rollout of gigabit broadband services across social housing, the council are introducing a digital skills campaign to encourage more residents online. Volunteers are being recruited to assist neighbours who are less digitally savvy. As encouragement, they are being offered a free IPad and a free broadband service, if they train more than 20 people a year.

Final thoughts

To compete globally, cities will be looking to introduce gigabit broadband infrastructure. London, as a global technology hub and a key driver for growth across the UK, will need to invest in order to support businesses and meet the expectations of citizens. Government may have to provide greater leadership in order to incentivise private sector involvement. Equally, digital exclusion will need to be tackled, to ensure that everyone can participate in the information society.


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Digital Economy Bill – the impact of Brexit

By Steven McGinty

On the 18th March, the Queen’s Speech set out the government’s legislative programme for the year ahead. This included the Digital Economy Bill, a piece of legislation which aims to ensure the UK is a world leader in digital provision.

However, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said ‘a week is a long time in politics’. The UK has unexpectedly voted to leave the European Union (EU). The Prime Minister has stood down, leaving a leadership contest in the Conservative Party. And many are uncertain about the future direction of the country.

In this article, I’ll outline the Digital Economy Bill, highlight some of the early commentary, as well as comment on the new political landscape the Bill now finds itself in.

Digital Economy Bill

The Digital Economy Bill focuses on five main areas. These include:

Fast broadband

The Bill introduces a ‘Broadband Universal Service Obligation’, providing all citizens and businesses with the legal right to have a fast broadband connection installed (of at least 10Mbps initially). This is similar to the telephone landline obligation which currently exists.

There is also an emphasis on cutting the costs and improving the processes for building broadband infrastructure. However, at this stage, there is very little detail on how this might be achieved, apart from introducing a new Electronic Communication Code and making changes to the planning system.

Consumers

New powers will be given to Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, which will enable them to request data, such as broadband speeds data, which will help consumers in choosing a provider. The Bill also attempts to make it easier for consumers to switch provider and to receive compensation when things go wrong.

Data sharing

Public bodies will be given powers to share information in an effort to combat fraud, which costs the country billions every year. For example, the cost of tax fraud was estimated to be £15 billion in 2011. Other notable measures include encouraging the use of data to provide better public services and identifying and helping people with debts at an earlier stage.

Intellectual property rights

The new Bill recognises that it’s important to support digital industries by addressing the difference in online/offline copyright laws. In addition, the process of registering copyright should be easier and cheaper.

Unsolicited Marketing

Consumers will be given further protection against spam emails and nuisance calls.

Early commentary  

TechUK, industry body for the digital sector, has welcomed the new Bill, highlighting that if implementation is successful, the measures will play an important role in growing the UK’s digital economy. They do, however, note the need for careful consideration when making changes to the planning system and the Electronic Communication Code, alongside stressing the need to ensure changes to copyright law are technically feasible.

Geoff French, chairman of the Enterprise M3 Local Economic Partnership, has also welcomed the advantages the new Bill could bring to business. He highlights that there are still too many urban and rural areas that have low broadband speeds, affecting the growth of the digital economy, as well as the innovation, productivity and competitiveness of the wider economy.

Brendan O’Reilly, Chief Technology Officer at O2 UK, suggests that the planning system needs to be streamlined to allow the expansion of the network. He explains that the process of deploying a mast can take up to three years from start to finish. To emphasis his point, he contrasts the situation in the UK with that in South Korea, where three months to deployment of a mast is considered a long time. And although the new Bill may provide for this change, he highlights the need for collaboration between government and industry, and to think more of ‘UK plc’.

Landowners, however, have been less positive about the new Bill. Under new proposals, landowners would receive ‘compensation’ for masts located on their property; as opposed to the current system where they receive ‘market rate’. As Strutt & Parker telecoms specialist Robert Paul explains, this could mean landowners who used to receive £7,000-£8,000/year, would instead receive £200-£300/year, if classed as compensation. Mr Paul suggests that this could result in landowners taking their case to tribunals, with the result being expensive and time consuming legal challenges to the deployment of masts.

The elephant in the room – Techxit?  

Before the referendum result was announced, Ed Vaizey, UK digital economy minister, stated that there would be a ‘significant economic impact’ if we voted to leave the EU, with uncertainty affecting investment decisions in the UK.

Although it’s too soon to comment on whether this is the case, there has been some notable reaction since the UK voted to leave the EU. Firstly, Ed Vaizey has stated that progressing the Digital Economy Bill will not be delayed as a consequence of the result. However, unconfirmed reports (reported in the media) have suggested that the Bill may have to have its contents altered.

The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that the telecoms industry has been negatively affected by the result, with revenue forecasts being reduced from 29% to 23% by 2020. They highlight, though, that the Digital Economy Bill is still likely to contain regulation that supports increased investment, and that Brexit may even lead to a more favourable investment environment. Yet, the EIU also notes that other broadband targets, such as the elimination of rural ‘not-spots’ may be deemed less important.

At the moment, the reforms in the Digital Economy Bill are still on the agenda. But it’s not clear how future changes will affect its progress. For instance, issues such as the free movement of skilled professionals, the UK’s position in the single market, and the impact on investment for start-ups are all sources of uncertainty.

The Knowledge Exchange will monitor the Bill’s progress as it receives parliamentary scrutiny.


The Digital Economy Bill was introduced into Parliament on 5 July 2016.

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The UK digital economy: how can the government support digital businesses?

By Steven McGinty

Last month, the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee launched an inquiry into the UK’s digital economy. Iain Wright MP, the Chair of the Committee, explained that:

Digital technology is rapidly changing the economic landscape in which firms operate. Nothing short of a digital and tech revolution is taking place, with new entrepreneurs and business models emerging and existing businesses having to adapt quickly to keep pace.”

The inquiry will focus on three areas:

  • Government actions affecting businesses in the digital economy;
  • how to maximise the opportunities and overcome challenges in the sector;
  • how the sector can contribute to improving national productivity.

The BIS Committee is asking for submissions from those involved in the digital economy, including digital businesses and companies hoping to benefit from technology.

 Why should the government support the digital economy?

Innovate UK expect that, by 2015, the UK digital economy will account for 10% of GDP. Tech City UK report that the sector employs 1.5 million people (about 7.5% of the total workforce); although this is expected to increase by 5.4% by 2020. In 2013-2014, 15% of all the companies formed were digital businesses. Most were based outside of London (74%) and nearly all were SMEs (98%). The majority (90%) of digital companies expect revenues to grow within the next year.

Technology clusters

Technology clusters play an important role in the UK’s digital economy. There are 21 clusters across the UK, with expertise ranging from software development to marketing and advertising. The majority of digital businesses consider themselves part of a cluster (65%). Bournemouth has the fastest growing digital cluster, with a 212% increase in the number of companies formed since 2010. Its specialism is digital marketing and advertising.

This growth suggests specific focus should be given to technology clusters. Tech City UK found that a third of digital companies highlighted access to funding as a challenge, particularly outside of London and the South East.  One suggestion offered by Tech City UK is that businesses need to take advantage of European funding where possible.

Other forms of support could include: providing fast and accessible broadband; access to a pool of skilled employees; suitable workspace, particularly in the South East; and business and mentoring advice.

Digital Economy Strategy 2015-2018

At the beginning of the year, Innovate UK set out a strategy to support UK businesses in getting the most out of digital technology. It sets out five main objectives:

  • Encouraging digital innovators
  • Focusing on the user
  • Equipping the digital innovator
  • Growing infrastructure, platforms and ecosystems
  • Ensuring sustainability.

Within the strategy, actions are put forward for how these goals will be achieved. For instance, to ensure sustainability, Innovate UK would work closely with UK research councils to encourage cross-disciplinary academic collaboration and help connect it to real-world business needs. If even some progress is made with each of these objectives it would be hugely beneficial for the UK digital economy.

Innovation centres – the Digital Catapult

The Digital Catapult is a national centre that aims to accelerate the UK’s best digital ideas to the marketplace, in order to create new products, services and jobs. It was established in 2014 by Innovate UK and is based in the Knowledge Quarter in Kings Cross. There are also three local centres in the North East and Tees Valley (NETV), Brighton, and Yorkshire.

The Digital Catapult centres focus on the challenges associated with: closed organisational data; personal data; creative content; and the internet of things (IoT). The centres are involved in a number of projects, including IoTUK, which has been launched as part of a £40 million government investment in the internet of things (the use of networks to allow the exchange and collection of data from everyday objects, such as fridges). The programme aims to increase the adoption of high quality IoT technologies and services throughout business and the public sector.

Regina Moran, CEO at Fujitsu UK&I, notes that:

The IoT has the potential to turn ideas in a hyper-connected world into fully realised digital services but it has challenges ahead and it’s encouraging to see the Government investing in its development.”

 Regulation

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has managed to convince the European Commission (EC) to review the VAT regime for tech start-ups, arguing that it punished British entrepreneurs. The regime, which was implemented in January, forced companies to pay tax in every country they traded in rather than their headquarters. It also eliminated a £81,000 threshold for which companies have to register for VAT duty.

However, the Commission has recognised that this was adversely affecting small businesses. Therefore, measures such as the reintroduction of the VAT threshold and a single registration scheme for cross-border taxes, will be included in the Commission’s consultation.

The UK government’s approach shows a commitment to providing a competitive business environment and a single European market in digital services. It’s likely that most digital businesses would support the government’s approach.

Concluding remarks

The upcoming BIS Committee inquiry will provide an opportunity to reflect on the government’s approach so far. Although evidence confirms that the digital economy has been growing, there may be areas that the UK is failing to capitalise on. In a highly competitive globalised economy, it’s important that the UK exploits any strategic advantage, ensuring that innovative ideas are brought to the market quickly.

The inquiry will also provide an opportunity for a dialogue between the government and the private sector. This increased collaboration can only be good news for the UK’s digital businesses.

Here at Idox, we take an active interest in the future of the digital economy and eagerly await the Committee’s findings.


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