George Freeman, MP for Mid Norfolk and Minister for Life Sciences, called for radical reform of EU red tape, meeting MEPs and the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation to highlight the burden imposed on Norfolk businesses from Brussels.
In his keynote speech, Mr Freeman championed the role of Norfolk science and research, and warned of a new ‘dark age’ unless the EU reformed the regulatory system, so scientists and entrepreneurs were free to innovate. He said:
'The biggest single risk to this in the 21stC Bio-Economy is inappropriate REGULATION. Now, opposition is nothing new. The Luddites threatened to hold back discovery in the early 19thC. And we face a similar challenge today. But if we give into the vocal minority against the use of genetics and Big Data…we will turn our backs on the next phase of Enlightenment progress. That’s right: a new Dark Age. Europe cut off from the benefits of 21stC science. We need a regulatory framework which combines public trust and consumer safety, supporting commercialisation for the products the world urgently needs.’
Photo: George with Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation
Dark Age or Enlightenment? Will Europe lead or legislate against the next Industrial Revolution? (1423 words)
Commissioner, Thank you for that kind introduction....
Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to tell you a story.
It’s a story that has a clear warning for us today.
I want to take you back with me to the British Midlands in the 1770s. To the invention of the steam engine.
The Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer James Watt has given up his quest to begin manufacturing the steam engine he patented in 1769.
His inability to finance its commercialisation because of crippling regulation has made it impossible. He returns to work as a civil engineer and dies in poverty in the early 19thC.
The progress of what might otherwise have been a great industrial revolution is halted, left to be continued outside of Europe. In America perhaps, or Russia.
Fortunately, this is only a story. Thankfully, the reality was different.
Having patented his steam engine, Watt went into partnership with the British manufacturer Matthew Boulton in 1775.
Through Boulton, Watt had access to some of the best iron workers in the world. Boulton and Watt’s first engines were installed and working in commercial use the next year.
The Double Acting Steam Engine made Birmingham the HQ of an 18thC cluster of engineering and manufacturing, powering the Industrial Revolution around the world.
Now I want to take you forward 250 years, to Norfolk and the Sainsbury's Laboratory at the world famous Norwich Research Park.
Scientists are working on a blight resistant potato…
…immune to the blight which caused the potato famine in Ireland, killing millions.
A potato which now no longer needs 15 applications of toxic fungicide to prevent blight.
Another potentially transformational breakthrough, like Watt’s Steam Engine.
The Blight Resistant Potato is also being worked on by BASF, one of Europe and Germany's major Crop Protection companies…
But this time the innovation has NOT been commercialised because of a failure to grant approval for commercial use in the European Union.
All despite the absence of ANY scientific evidence of harm to human health or biodiversity.
And BASF do decide to move its Agri R&D Operation to the US.
The steam engine and the blight-resistant potato.
Two stories, two outcomes – and a lesson that I want to talk about tonight.
AGE OF BIO-SCIENCE
Today - 250 years on from the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions - the world stands at the dawn of a new age.
We have lived through the age of Chemistry and Physics.
Now we live in the Age of Biology and Bioscience:
Sequencing the human genome and harnessing genetics in medicine.
Uncovering the genetic make up of plants and animals, as I saw at the European Institute for Bio-Informatics in Cambridge…
…and breakthroughs in cell biology and synthetic biology, harnessing the body's own systems for manufacturing proteins as cellular factories.
This next industrial Revolution offers untold opportunities for the advanced Western European economies.
We may no longer be the imperial powers, or military superpowers…
…but we are Scientific Superpowers.
And, together, Europe is THE global scientific superpower of the 21stC global economy.
Make no mistake, the appliance of bioscience has the potential to transform the way we live:
Developing drought and disease resistant crops to allow agriculture to flourish where today it can’t.
…new 'nutriceutical' functional foods…
…and biological systems for converting waste to energy.
I recently sat in a Lotus Sports Car powered by elite low carbon Formula 1 fuel.
It was made from agricultural waste broken down and converted into fuel by GM modified bacteria.
That’s the new Life Sciences working for us…
…Industrial Bioscience in a new Bio-Economy.
It’s my great privilege to lead this work in the UK as the first Minister for Life Sciences.
And I know how high the stakes are.
As millions of families around the globe go to sleep tonight without the basics of food, medicine or energy…
…people dying of diseases we have long since forgotten about…
I believe the harnessing of these technologies is not just an economic but also a moral imperative.
So let us be in no doubt about the challenge ahead.
The Report of the UK Foresight Committee was clear: we need to feed a global population of 9billion and double world food production by 2050, on same land area with half as much water and energy.
The Malthusians have always predicted failure and catastrophe.
But all of us who understand the power of science and innovation know we are equal to this task.
As JFK once noted, in Chinese ‘the word "crisis" is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.’
I believe that logic applies to how Europe responds to the challenge from fast emerging 'tiger' economies too.
These emerging economies will need to go through the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the next 30 years that we pioneered and took 300 years to develop.
But with a crucial difference:
They – and we – need it to be a Clean Green model of 21stC development.
So the choice is clear:
Are we going to unlock the power of our bio and life science base to support and lead that revolution - attracting inward investment and opening up new export markets - or not?
And I believe our answer must be clear too.
We are all inheritors of the European Enlightenment tradition.
It would, frankly, be a denial of our European heritage - and our moral duty to those in need around the world – to turn our back on these values.
Values of innovation and discovery that have transformed our world.
We have a duty to embrace our strengths in science and rationalism. The EU can and I believe MUST be a Powerhouse of bioscience.
But investment alone isn’t enough.
As James Watt discovered, to make a difference science has to be commercialised to make new products.
And that means we need to be ready to support the businesses – new and established – which will create the products and the jobs of tomorrow.
Be in no doubt: this won’t just happen. We in Government need to set the framework to support the effective translation of science into innovation.
But we face one big obstacle.
The biggest single risk to this in the 21stC Bio-Economy is inappropriate REGULATION.
Now, opposition is nothing new.
The Luddites threatened to hold back discovery in the early 19thC.
And we face a similar challenge today.
But if we give into the vocal minority against the use of genetics and Big Data…
…we will turn our backs on the next phase of Enlightenment progress.
That’s right: a new Dark Age. Europe cut off from the benefits of 21stC bioscience.
We need a regulatory framework which combines public trust and consumer safety…
…supporting commercialisation for the products the world urgently needs.
Take that one example:
Standing in the way of the blight resistant potato.
The consequences were profound. BASF decided to move its Agri R&D Operation from Germany to the USA - a £multibillion disinvestment.
This should be a wake up call to us all.
When a great European company like BASF decides to leave the EU…
…all because we are regulating against the innovations the rest of the world is hungry for…
…we need to act.
So my message today is simple: COME ON EUROPE!
As a Minister in the UK, I'm ambitious for Britain. But I'm also ambitious for Europe.
And for Britain IN Europe. As is the Life Science community I represent.
But the status quo can’t continue:
Without more focus on growth and enterprise…
…and an enlightened regulatory system on the side of innovation...
....it will get harder to defend the importance of the European Union to this global mission.
So I come with an ambitious Manifesto for UK and European Leadership in Innovation in the 21stC Bio-Economy.
I'm delighted to see the importance President Junker has attached to Innovation, and I’ve had several meetings with Commissioner Moedas who I know is committed to this agenda.
I look forward to working with him and the Dutch Presidency in the coming months.
So let’s seize the hour.
Commit ourselves to an ambitious vision of European Leadership.
Let’s be the generation who renew Europe's historic leadership in science and innovation…
…for the benefit of a rapidly developing globe, and the prospects of our own citizens.
Let’s put a commitment to lead this new Age of Bio-Science at the heart of our agenda for the 21stC European Union.
Let’s embrace Enlightenment not regulate ourselves into a New Dark Age.