Can AD survive in a world without subsidies?

Written by: Angie Bywater | Published:

The government must pledge its policy and fiscal support for research and development, including the commercialisation of R&D beyond education establishments, in order to secure the future of the UK’s anaerobic digestion industry and to encourage the country’s circular bio-economy post-Brexit, argues Angie Bywater at Methanogen UK

The recent name change of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) signifies a subtle shift in government thinking: bringing together business, industrial strategy, science, innovation, energy and climate change under one roof. The implication of this is that science and innovation are seen as strong drivers to both strengthen British business and to help solve some of the local and global challenges associated with climate change.

Indeed, when Greg Clark was appointed as the new secretary of state for BEIS, he told The Guardian: “I am thrilled to have been appointed to lead this new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, leading government’s relationship with business, furthering our world-class science base, delivering affordable, clean energy and tackling climate change.”

But there are also a number of hurdles which must be overcome in order for us to be able to effectively take our world-class scientific research from the lab to the marketplace, in order to support resilience and innovation in ‘UK plc’.

Significant challenge

A major hurdle is the impact of the uncertainties surrounding Brexit, which cannot be underestimated. Up until now, there has been a significant amount of European funding available to UK researchers for cutting-edge research initiatives such as those supported by the EU Horizon 2020 programme. Post-Brexit, these will no longer be available in this form to UK research institutions and business. Furthermore, there are questions about the movement of vital researchers between UK and European universities, which could adversely affect collaborative initiatives. However, this also potentially provides the government with an opportunity to fund research more relevant to UK strategy.

Although the UK has just signed up to the 5th Carbon Budget, there has been no clear and long-term plan from government to achieve these targets.

Additionally, the UK has traditionally not been as successful as many other countries in commercialising research and thus realising the advantages that R&D can bring to the bottom line. In order to address this, many research institutions are increasingly setting up departments for technology transfer and commercialisation, as well as closely partnering with business. Nevertheless, there is still inconsistent support for research from ‘deep science’ at low technology readiness levels (TRLs) through to a point where it can spring from universities, traverse the ‘valley of death’ and become fully commercialised.

Importance of research

What does this mean for anaerobic digestion?

In the circular bio-economy, AD has a critical role to play in recycling organics back to land in a safe and environmentally friendly manner. However, against a background of disappearing subsidies and climate change, research is a vital component in ensuring that the industry can survive, thrive and export to a subsidy-free world.

In terms of regulation, anaerobic digestion straddles a number of government departments. But in the research field, it has an even wider cross-sectoral scope: agriculture, horticulture, economic modelling, energy from waste systems, industrial biotechnology, civil and environmental engineering, biology, organic and synthetic chemistry, sociology and social anthropology, and more.

To this end, a number of stakeholders from academia and industry have got together to propose a Centre for Anaerobic Biotechnology and Bio-resources, which has a strategic vision to gather and focus the best UK researchers in relevant areas in order to address some of the key research challenges.

With the government about to announce its industrial strategy, it is clear that strategic, consistent, long-term support for research and development, within and outside of higher education, must be included. World-class research that is stuck inside research establishments and cannot be commercialised through lack of support, as well as visionary investment, is a waste of taxpayers’ money and a blow to the bottom line of UK plc, and the strategy must tackle this

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