Monday 14 November 2016 4:30 am

Shelve the EU’s anti-innovation precautionary principle to turbocharge the UK’s Fourth Industrial Revolution post-Brexit

Thirty years ago, Big Bang launched a wave of technological change, transforming the City’s fortunes and securing its future. Facing down vested interests and naysayers, the Thatcher government understood that championing innovation would turbo-charge Britain’s economy – and seized the day.

June’s EU referendum result was also a decisive turning point. Both Remainers and Leavers alike should now support Theresa May’s work to deliver a successful Brexit, because Britain must take control of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to both change the direction of our nation, and our approach to key areas of policy.

Turbo-charging British science, technology and innovation should be top of that list. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution (often dubbed the “4IR”) accelerates and the government develops its new industrial strategy, we should use Brexit as a catalyst to both turn away from the EU’s risk-averse, anti-innovation culture and simultaneously step up investment in British science and technology.

We should start by shelving the EU’s “precautionary principle”. Enshrined in EU law, this is a risk management strategy, used widely by EU regulators, under which the burden is on inventors of new medicines, products and technologies to prove that their invention is not harmful where some risk exists, even if there is no scientific consensus to suggest that actual harm may occur. If in doubt: hold back; don’t innovate.

Research Into Cancer Conducted At The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute
The EU's approach: if in doubt, don't innovate (Source: Getty)

This led to what George Freeman, former life sciences minister, described as an “increasingly science hostile” approach from the EU to innovation. It meant, for example, German chemical company BASF and American agribusiness Monsanto stopping research on GM crops in Europe at a time when the Continent could have turned itself into a world leader in crop technology.

Thankfully, Philip Hammond will not make the same mistake when it comes to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He knows that driverless cars, drones, 3D printing, advanced robotics, and AI-powered hedge funds are no longer science fiction, but just some of the new technologies that will future-proof our post-Brexit economy.

That’s why he announced £220m worth of new investment to back the 4IR in his party conference speech last month, pointing out that “…unnoticed by most of us, entrepreneurs and scientists… have been turning Britain into a hub of tech innovation”.

Read more: Don't fear: The PM's industrial strategy won't take Britain back to the 70s

Let’s use Brexit as the springboard for even greater success: by abandoning the EU’s precautionary principle, putting the 4IR at the heart of our industrial strategy, and ramping up support for our scientists and entrepreneurs, Britain can kick on. “Masters of the Revolution”, my new report published today, sets out 20 practical policy ideas that will help turn that vision into reality.

It recommends, for example, a new national fund to boost investment in 4IR innovations based on convergent, multiple technologies. The 4IR is characterised not by innovation in discrete sectors (such as agri-tech or energy which already benefit from special government funds) but by the convergence of multiple technologies, whether digital, biological or chemical.

Hybrid Tomato Seed  More Expensive Than Gold
The 4IR is characterised by the convergence of different technologies (Source: Getty)

For example, Lotus Cars produces vehicles powered by low-carbon fuel, made from agricultural waste broken down by genetically-modified bacteria. A new fund will help launch, grow and commercialise more multiple-technology 4IR products.

We also need new regional investment funds for 4IR-focused businesses and infrastructure outside the South East. These funds would support local priorities, from establishing new tech startup clusters and science parks, to grant programmes for 4IR SMEs, giving 4IR entrepreneurs a focal point for funding in their own region.

Tax and regulatory policies to help British startups become scaleups; new research centres for advanced robotics and vaccines; welfare and education reforms to enable people to take up new 4IR jobs; a fast-track visa system for highly-skilled 4IR workers; and continued investment in digital infrastructure and skills are among the other key recommendations.

Just as open outcry on City trading floors gave way to fintech-powered transactions completed at the touch of a button, Brexit is the inflection point at which Britain pivots away from the EU’s precautionary principle and adopts a more “can do” approach to science and technology. Combined with greater investment into the sector, Brexit can lead to a new Big Bang culture, ensuring Britain leads the 4IR as it transforms the way we live, work and do business forever.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.