Photonics associations reassure industry following Brexit

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Jessica Rowbury rounds up reaction from the European photonics sector on Britain’s decision to leave the European Union 

Although the United Kingdom’s shock decision to leave the EU has generated a cloud of uncertainty in the UK and across Europe, the European photonics business should remain largely unaffected, according to industry associations. Britain now needs to look to Switzerland’s relationship with the EU in order to get the best for photonics research and trade, the UK Photonics Leadership Group has said.

Following the announcement of the referendum’s outcome on 24 June, concerns relating to currency fluctuations, scientific funding, and business dealings have dominated headlines and social media, further adding to the sense of confusion and panic.

‘Emotions ran high for Brexit, strong words were used: shocked, disgusted, astonished, gobsmacked, angry and embarrassed,’ Carlos Lee, director general of the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC), wrote on his LinkedIn site after speaking to numerous members of the association, 15 per cent of which reside in the UK.

‘It is not surprising to hear such reactions, as Brexit was a very close decision… 16.14 million people voted to remain with the European Union. EPIC is aware that there are a lot of photonics companies in Scotland where majority was in favour of remaining part of the EU,’ Lee wrote. ‘An interesting statistic was that approximately 61 per cent of voters in favour of Brexit were… [of] an age of retirement and not the core of EPIC’s membership. Brexit, therefore, is not a reflection of the views to the first approximation of EPIC member companies, but perhaps a populist trend that may have consequences on these photonics companies nonetheless.’

However, despite the emotional reactions to the result, it has been suggested that the European photonics industry will remain largely unaffected. ‘There will be an adjustment period, but in the end, EPIC believes the industry will stabilise,’ added Lee. ‘This is because competitive photonics companies are naturally structured to operate in an international market… As long as the UK remains an important market for the photonics industry, companies will make efforts to supply the market.’

Looking more specifically at Germany, Dr Wenko Süptitz, head of the Photonics Division at the German high-tech industry association, Spectaris, has said that photonics in Germany should not suffer as a result of Brexit. Also writing on LinkedIn, Wenko pointed out that although Great Britain is an important trading partner for the German photonics industry – as one of the top 10 photonics importers and top five destinations for German photonics exports – the German market will remain largely unaffected. ‘With a trade share of 6.2 per cent of the exports and 2.7 per cent of the imports, the trade volume with Britain is not a cluster risk for the German photonics industry as a whole. The German-British photonics trade might suffer only slightly. The growing trade volume of Germany with the non-EU country Switzerland proves this point.’ 

Swiss model 

During the next couple of years of negotiations, Britain can look to Switzerland’s relationship with the EU, not only in terms of trade but also for research.

As organisations in the UK have received close to €7 billion through the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme that ran from 2007-2013, and are continuing to receive significant funding through the Commission’s €80 billion Horizon 2020 initiative, there are concerns about what Brexit will mean for photonics research and innovation. ‘[As a result of Brexit] UK companies that were eagerly waiting to apply to European specific calls exactly addressing their areas of expertise may well be limited to domestic government support and not pan-European support as in Horizon 2020,’ said Lee on LinkedIn.

For the next couple of years during the negotiation stage, UK organisations can still apply for EU funding as normal.

Looking further ahead, Switzerland's relationship with the EU demonstrates a way of participating in part to EU funded projects. ‘For the longer term impact we can look to Switzerland for inspiration and for anticipated developments,' read a statement by the UK Photonics Leadership Group, an association representing the UK photonics industry.

The terms with Horizon 2020 means Switzerland can participate in certain parts of the programme. For example, although excluded from projects such as ‘Innovation in SMEs’ and ‘Access to Risk Finance’, Swiss organisations can participate – as so called third countries – in the 'Leadership in Enabling and Industrial Technologies (LEIT)' pillar and 'Societal Challenges' calls. In this case, the country is funded directly from Swiss authorities, and they do not count towards the minimum number of participants. '[Swiss partners] are in effect bonus partners, with the benefits that adding a Swiss partner to a project doesn’t dilute the overall budget, but adds to the funding pot,' the UK Photonics Leadership Group's website stated.

Its participation in H2020 programmes such as ‘Excellence in Science’ and the EU Research Council works in the same way as for other countries – Switzerland pays the Commission and funds flow to successful applicants across the EU. ‘However, this is likely to change in the future and move to Swiss partners being funded locally as [with LEIT],’ the UK Photonics Leadership Group has said.

‘This [association with H2020] works quite well for us, as we continue to be networked and forced to be competitive in calls being funded either through Brussels, [as with] “Excellent in Science”, or directly,' said Dr Christoph Harder, Swiss Photonics, speaking to Electro Optics. ‘And…we are no load on the project budget of the European partners, which is appreciated.'

With negotiations expected to take a couple of years at the very least, ‘the main impact of Brexit will be on UK participation in whatever follows H2020, with current trends indicating a focus on digitising industry in the broadest sense.’

In that time it will be critical for the UK photonics sector to lobby at the national level in order to secure a relationship that is beneficial to not just the UK but to the European photonics sector.

This will include the UK involving itself with bodies such as Photonics21 that help steer the direction of future collaborative projects across Europe, the UK Photonics Leadership Group has said. 'Indeed being an independently supported bonus partner could be positively beneficial to many consortia, where UK (or Swiss) organisations can provide significant expertise, provided there is sufficient funding from the UK,' the UK's Photonics Leadership Group said in its statement.

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Further information 

UK Photonics Leadership Group