Technology Strategy Board makes surprise ruling to allow levy payments as co-funding in R&D projects

A surprise decision by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) to allow levy payments to be used as co-funding in R&D projects has been welcomed by industry figures, who believe that intense lobbying has been key in the move.

The call for projects to apply to the TSB's £13m collaborative R&D fund for crop protection opened on Monday (18 January), with guidance for applicants indicating that levy money could be used.

A TSB representative told HW that although the levy money was "largely defined as public money", the body had "come up with a solution we think is going to help".

"The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) will be able to join in the call but only by funding research groups that are part of a wider consortium," she said. "When all the requirements are met, the projects would be exempt from state aid rules."

The guidance states that when the intellectual property rights remain with the research organisation, the results of the project are widely disseminated and are not the subject of exclusive licensing, levy bodies that constitute the AHDB "might consider supporting the costs incurred by the research organisations in successful applications".

AHDB chief scientist Ian Crute, who will be represented when decisions are taken on which projects to fund - along with Defra and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council - told HW: "The bottom line is that there is an arrangement to which the TSB has agreed. The AHDB and the levy bodies will be involved as co-funders.

"We have to work this through in practice but certainly in principle we have got as good an end product as LINK."

He added that the process had been "bedevilled" with legal issues and explained that the TSB was "not used to working with a fragmented industry like ours".

National Horticultural Forum chairman Andrew Colquhoun said: "This is encouraging progress." However, Crute highlighted that ornamentals would still be stymied to a large extent under the new system, which is focused on food.

"It is still the case that ornamentals cannot be the primary recipient of the projects. But in a larger project to do with weed or pest control, a target could be ornamental plants," he explained.

Horticultural Development Company chairman Neil Bragg said: "There has been a bit of fast backtracking to get us involved. This should have been sorted out before the whole thing was set up. It looks as though there is a light at the end of the tunnel but we are writing the rules after the event."

To address the ongoing problem of ornamentals research, a meeting was set to go ahead this week between Bragg, Stockbridge Technology Centre chief executive Graham Ward, HTA director general David Gwyther, NFU horticulture board chair Sarah Pettit and British Protected Ornamentals Association chair Sarah Fairhurst.

The aim was to set up an arm's length organisation for winning funding for ornamentals projects through the EU and regional development agencies as a way of buffering the loss of HortLINK and the TSB's focus on edibles.

"We have really got to try very hard to ensure on the ornamentals side that we do everything we can to optimise funds," explained Bragg.

NFU chief horticultural adviser Phil Hudson added: "Clearly there is a need to ensure that there is a suitable architecture in place for ornamentals research that enables as much value to be achieved from levy payers' contributions. The TSB freely admits it has learning to do in understanding the industry."

Gwyther said the TSB's decision to allow the AHDB on board was a "step in the right direction". He added: "The industry has been lobbying hard with Defra, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the TSB, and it appears that someone is listening. It is as a result of lobbying that sense has prevailed on this."

Ward added: "I would presume it changed its mind because of the significant lobbying that has been going on. However, it only has some minor relevance to ornamentals.

"The ultimate solution is to have an ornamentals applied research body and that would be a vehicle for sorting out the priorities of ornamentals growers."


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