Forget about the science, the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme is an inefficient political project

Forget about the science, the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme is an inefficient political project

We hear a lot about the “disaster” of the UK’s “loss of scientific funding” after exit from the EU. Well, we would, wouldn’t we? A lot of vested interests are at stake, not necessarily aligned with the UK’s interests, all accessing or desiring to access this attractive pot of money – money that is essentially the UK taxpayers’ to start with, and only after the EU has taken a chunk of it to redistribute elsewhere.

The projects funded in the UK are no doubt generally worthy of support, but it’s important to realise the EU project is primarily political, not scientific. And here lies the problem.

Let’s look at the EU’s flagship innovation funding project, Horizon 2020: this is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of taxpayer funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020).  H2020 promises “more breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market.” Well, for the vast sum €80,000,000,000 one would expect more results, of some sort.

But how does that work for a small business in the UK?

Take my company, for example; we have a breakthrough technology able to quantify paramagnetic immunoassay beads by their magnetic signal. It is a detection of the” eye of the needle in the haystack” challenge. It offers a Holy Grail solution that might bring laboratory analyser accuracy to hand-held medical diagnostic devices, especially for High Sensitivity Troponin testing for early diagnosis of heart attack. At least one giant (European) diagnostic company has tried and failed to make a similar system work, despite expending maybe €100m on its now abandoned project. We appear to be far further ahead – for a private investment of a couple of million pounds.

So you might think that we are an ideal company for H2020 EU funding assistance to take us to the next level. Our technology has the potential to transform diagnostics to improve healthcare outcomes, save NHS costs and produce a £1bn plus global product of fabulous value to the UK. Surely, EU H2020 support is a no-brainer?


We are based in Manchester. We have all we need locally in the UK, fabulously well-qualified contractors and university support, electronics and software consultancy, advanced sensor production and design. All of these essential elements are available within a two-hour journey from us. We do use a subcontractor in Denmark for one aspect as discretionary business choice, but that’s about it. Yes, we have all we need. Except for additional development money, for which H2020 would be ideal.

Unfortunately, we do not qualify. Because H2020 demands, as a gatekeeper qualification, that we partner with at least two other entities in at least two other EU states. But we don’t need a French University, a Polish microfluidics company or a circuit board maker in Croatia. If we did, we would be using them already. We simply don’t need them to do anything for us as contractors – and we certainly don’t need them forced through the door as our partners by the EU.

So that’s us locked out of H2020, despite the fact it is UK taxpayers’ money in the first place.

But it’s even worse than that, because UK innovators desperate to get access to the H2020 pot are often forced to use consultants able to understand and work the H2020 system. This can, apart from steering a way through the paperwork, involve gaming the system by crowbarring other EU entities into a UK company’s project, no matter how unnecessary they were prior to the applying entities’ realisation of the H2020 requirement.

A huge consultancy industry has thereby grown up around the H2020 funding. Setting aside the distraction to applying companies, this “industry” takes fees and/or a big bite out of any funding gained. This is wholly unproductive – nothing whatsoever is invented, developed or produced by this cost. Only grant money, with a chunk taken out of it, may be gained. It is effectively another layer of inefficient administration.

I get why university researchers and academics may rate H2020 – money from anywhere is good when you have nothing to sell. And perhaps better-resourced, more corporate operations might see H2020 as a nice bonus for shareholders. And for both, the H2020 political project generates desirable foreign travel for academics and executives with time on their hands, funded by “free” money provided by the taxpayer. What’s not to like?

For us, actually developing ground-breaking commercial technology, it’s useless. H2020 is an inefficient political project with the primary aim of binding the EU together toward federalisation, not to advance science or business. It is painfully obvious that post-Brexit the UK can spend its own money directly in the UK far better than this, and it should.