My European swansong – encouraging innovation and technological talent

Hyperloop all cutaway
Concept art of Hyperloop inner workings

Today, my work in Europe is nearly complete. The European Parliament committee gave its final vote in favour of an “opinion” for which I was responsible before the UK’s MEPs’ untimely exit from Brussels. I was working with advisers assessing amendments from all parties until the last hour of my last working day.

In the next month or so, the subject goes to full parliamentary Plenary session as part of the bill entitled “The Strategic Innovation Agenda for the European Innovation and Technology Institute (EIT), to encourage innovation and talent and European innovative capacity” – a sweet mouthful that concerns strategy and funding for an amazing institution for the next 7 years. It also includes, with my strong support, a proposal for a new branch of the EIT to support technical innovation in the cultural and creative sectors.

The EIT is a curious beast. With an explicit focus on innovation and commercial development, its purpose is to promote technical education and academic research and bring these together with business such that scientists and innovators benefit from the experience of entrepreneurs and vice versa.

It operates through “innovation communities” rather than physical academic departments. As the central hub of EIT Food, the University of Reading was the focus for 21 different collaborating UK research institutions and private companies, as well as many more in all 27 member states. The UK branch of EIT Climate brought more than 60 universities, local authorities and companies together across all four nations.

In preparing my opinion, I was briefed by the team from the commission who drafted the original legislation. Quizzing them to ensure I had the full measure of the file was a joy. They wanted to work with me, were delighted to be challenged on even the smallest point and welcomed constructive suggestions on how to make things better. Indeed, the real pleasure for me in the process was discovering that with a fresh eye, an informed, outsider’s view and as a representative of high tech industries across the South East of England, I was useful.

The overall Director of the EIT and other lead researchers were available, so I could test my ideas as they developed and ensure that changes to the legislation I suggested – and I proposed more almost 100 amendments – will, when the bill is passed next week, work well for the teams on the ground.

In this work I had an opportunity to make changes that would improve what the EIT will have to offer in the future by way of education and research opportunities as well as making it more practical and affordable for small and medium-sized businesses and start-ups to be involved.

Although few of us have heard of the EIT, they do amazing work. Recent top innovations from the EIT stable include development of:

  • An AI system to improve type 1 diabetes management for children. Large scale, real life, human trials began Feb 2020.
  • A hyperloop-inspired transportation system based on the SpaceX open source vactrain design. The team won Top Design and Best Propulsion System at the recent SpaceX Awards. A 2 km test track is now up and running in Spain.
  • New converter technology to harvest wave energy. New wave energy converters expected on stream by 2024.
  • Smart irrigation systems that are already saving hundreds of thousands of tonnes of water.
  • And my favourite, ultra-fast, modular, long life, green carbon batteries based on organised carbon nanostructures.

In contrast, when I attended Pitch at the Palace in London in 2016 – a big deal in the UK innovation calendar – one of the featured ‘innovations’ was an App that plays sounds of the seashore while you try to sleep. (I mean, really???)

The EIT is the best and most productive example I saw of EU member states working together. And – once the agenda is approved today – it will operate with not one politician in sight.

In the next week, back on the day job with friends and colleagues furloughed and SMEs folding before our eyes, I may well weep as European innovation and technology marches forward without the UK.

  • My presentation to the Education and Culture Committee (CULT) from 21st January 2020, which talks more about how the EIT operates, the proposed budget, transparency, gender balance and increased access for SMEs, can be seen on YouTube.
  • When we left, the file was picked up by my fantastic Renew colleague Vlad Botos who has shepherded it though the last three months of debate and is presenting the report in plenary today.
  • * Judith Bunting was a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for South-East England from 2019 to 2020. She was our PPC for Newbury in 2015 and 2017. Judith is a scientist and works as a television producer.

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2 Comments

  • Thankyou Judith for your informative, and very sad, post. Thanks also for your few months of work in the European Parliament, and so sorry that it all ended prematurely.

    Speaking as a mere Lib Dem member (I did try for candidacy many years ago), we were all so excited when you and your record number of fellow MEPs were elected in May last year. I am sure others whose European careers have been brought to a close painfully early have also contributed considerably – thanks to all.

    May we venture to hope that one day we Brits will be back, and with an equally strong Lib Dem contingent!

  • Interesting. Thanks.

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