An open letter sent to Sarah Newton, Member of Parliament for Truro and Falmouth:
We are directors of an independent research organisation based in Penryn. We are classified as an SME, and as such currently fall between gaps in UK research legislation which is causing us considerable problems. As well as being our local representative, your past work in the Science and Technology select committee means you will have have particular experience in this matter.
We are a non-profit entity and our income is derived from a diverse mix of commercial work, collaborations with other research institutions and directly funded research projects. For example we currently have a 5 year R&D contract exporting our expertise and custom technology to the Deutsches Museum in Munich, and have been involved with over 40 similar research projects and commissions over the last 4 years.
In the course of our interdisciplinary work we have discovered inconsistencies between rules of separate UKRI councils, along with an inflexible categorisation regarding SME involvement as project partners in research. Ramifications have included having to decline collaborations with institutions who want to work with us, as they are unable to allow us to share our IP as an equal partner - which means we are unable to publish our research.
This seems to be in conflict with both the aims and problems identified by UK Industrial Strategy white paper:
"Fewer of our small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) introduce new products and processes than their European competitors"
As well as the spirit of the UKRI Strategic Prospectus itself:
"We are part of a much wider research and innovation community, from the learned societies to the great charitable funders, from our celebrated universities to our vibrant R&D intensive businesses and agile and creative SMEs. It is the richness and diversity of this system which is the key to the UK’s success. We recognise we are just one part of this great enterprise and are determined to serve it well."
Simplistic treatment of SME involvement in UKRI research means as a research organisation our role is often restricted to that of a "service provider" which contrasts strongly with comparative UK charitable funding bodies we work with (e.g. Wellcome Trust) as well as the EU level, where we are registered legally as an independent research organisation (PIC 925548878) and can directly apply for Horizon 2020 research funding for our work on an equal footing with other non-profit bodies such as universities.
1. Inconsistencies between UKRI councils
Despite the recent unification of research councils under UKRI, there are wide differences between them on this issue. For example in the AHRC funding guide, collaborations are loosely defined and although we cannot be treated as full 'Project Partners', the nature of the collaboration is left open to definition to be judged as part of the proposal, with no strict IP or other limitations specified - this is the only mention provided:
"If all the cost of collaborating organisation’s involvement is being charged to the project as part of the FEC, then this organisation is not a ‘Project Partner’ and their role as a collaborating organisation should be outlined in the Case for Support."
This open definition contrasts with, for example the NERC handbook (February 2018 version) which has a very specific understanding:
"Except in instances where the service provider is from the public sector, the conferring of any IP, author or other rights to it by the contractor in relation to the research grant proposal for which it was contracted to provide a service, is not permissible. The inclusion of an acknowledgement in any resulting material of the sub-contracted organisation’s contribution to the research is however acceptable. Should there be an intimation or desire on the part of the contractor and/or subcontractor not within the public sector, for other than such an acknowledgement e.g. co-author status on resulting publications, then the interaction between the parties concerned would be deemed to equate to a collaboration, in which case any costs incurred (either direct or indirect) can not be met by NERC."
If UKRI truly wish to promote and encourage the role of SMEs as part of the diverse research community, we would expect them to adopt a common policy closer to that of the AHRC and reflect a less prescribed relationship with smaller research organisations.
2. Inflexible categorisation regarding SME involvement as project partners in research.
Even if an SME can navigate the above situation and participate in research as a collaborator on a project led by a university, they are highly unlikely to be eligible for direct funding as a 'Independent Research Organisation' (IRO) themselves in the UK under two of the UKRI rules:
"Sufficient financial support for research at the organisational level to ensure the availability of essential infrastructure and the long-term sustainability of research activity, as evidenced by research income from independent sources averaging at least £0.5M pa over the previous three years"
"i) a minimum of ten researchers with a significant number of publications in top quality journals and/or monographs with key academic publishers, and/or other outputs that have been subject to the highest standards of peer review. Journal quality should take account of benchmark measures appropriate to the discipline."
This rule means that 96% of UK businesses would by default be locked out due to having <10 employees:
"5.5 million (96%) businesses were micro-businesses – employing 0-9 people. Micro-businesses accounted for 33% of employment and 22% of turnover."
These restrictions are unique to UKRI, and disregard the ability of SME non-profit and social enterprises to carry out research activities, drive their own research directions and effectively locks out their deeper involvement. According to the UK Industrial Strategy white paper, the stated aims are to remove exactly these kinds of restrictions:
"There is no single path to innovation. Successful products and services come from a range of sources – from businesses developing new products and universities creating businesses to the lone inventor commercialising an idea. The government will do more to address some of the frictions in the system to support collaboration and the flow of knowledge between research and industry, accelerating the path to market."
I write to you in the hope you might be able to help us find a way forward with some of these specific issues. Many thanks for you time, I plan to publish this as an open letter on our website (http://fo.am/kernow) as we often find issues we come up against are common to other organisations we are involved with, who find documentation such as this useful.
Amber Griffiths, Director
David Griffiths, Director