Drawing of the brain
‘There has never been a better time to be a scientist – or a worse one’. Photo ©

Pixabay, reproduced under licence and adapted from the original.

August 2019

The UK has long taken a global lead on science and research, which is a leading driver of progress, attraction, and prosperity - yet it has not always received commensurate benefit or recognition. Insight argues that it deserves a much bigger place at the very heart of policymaking.

The Global Impact of Science

The UK has a long-standing global lead on science, research, and innovation. Research is an increasingly global endeavour – more than half of all British academic articles have an international co-author, and nearly a third of Nobel prize winners from British universities were born overseas. Now, more than ever, we need collaboration to address global challenges.  

Moreover, research by the British Council due to be published later this year shows that if a nation is seen as excellent in science and innovation, this increases its attractiveness, although the UK does not receive as much recognition as might be expected given its world-leading science and research offer.  

The UK is arguably second only to the USA in its top quality research output, and ahead on some measures of quality and productivity. Science and research are core cultural assets for the UK, and international scientific collaboration remains an excellent way to build friendly relations.  For these reasons, the British Council has been promoting mutually beneficial scientific collaboration since it was written into our Charter in the 1930s. 

James Cronin, a British Council Trustee, gave a version of the below speech about the importance of science at a recent summit bringing together Parliamentarians, policymakers, and early career scientists from around the world who are studying in the UK through the Newton global science PHD scholarship fund. The text has been slightly edited for publication.

On Science as a Force for Good

“There has never been a better time to be a scientist – or a worse time, depending on your point of view. Science is where we’ll need to go for the answers to some of our biggest common challenges; but science, or at least technology, is also at the root of how we became faced with those challenges in the first place. We wouldn’t have the internet or global positioning satellites without the hard work of scientists; but neither would we have trolling or fake news or nuclear accidents. 

The job of the next generation of scientists is to be on the right side of history: to demonstrate, through their work and their career choices, that science is a force for good

The job of the next generation of scientists is to be on the right side of that argument, and of history: to demonstrate, through their work and their career choices, that science is a force for good.

Science has been one of the core charitable purposes of the British Council since our foundation 85 years ago. The organisation’s commitment to science led to postgraduate scholarships, the provision of scientific books and journals to libraries around the world, and – as in our other fields of activity – the British Council acting as an intermediary. British Council science officers around the world created connections between local scientists and British science associations, laboratories, government departments, and universities. Today its bi-lateral and multi-lateral programmes build research collaborations worldwide – helping to create strong relationships between the UK and partner countries. 

One of the best-known of these collaborations is BIRAX – the UK’s flagship programme for UK-Israel scientific collaboration. The BIRAX Regenerative Medicine Initiative has so far committed almost £8 million to projects involving over 100 researchers in both countries. This year BIRAX has turned its attention to research into ageing. 

Another large-scale programme is UKIERI (UK India Education and Research Initiative), which creates bilateral connections between learners, researchers, and professional scientists in the UK and India.

The British Council also helps to inspire new generations with the possibilities of science to improve the world, through the annual international science communication competition FameLab

The best science – whether that’s climate science or particle physics – has always been a collective international activity. In 2017, over 60% of all UK research publications resulted from international collaboration. A large part of the power of British science is its ability to make and nurture those international connections. 

That theme of connection is at the heart of the Newton Fund. The British Council is very proud to play a key part – along with other UK organisations – in delivering a Fund that is worth £735m and connects partners in 17 countries. 

Since 2014 we have delivered over 1,000 Newton funded projects addressing global challenges such as combating antimicrobial resistance, ensuring food and nutrition security, and building resilience to natural disasters. So far, it has funded more than 400 PhD students. 

Finally, it is necessary to consider the topic on everyone’s mind in this building at the moment – Brexit. The British Council passionately believes in the importance of cultural, educational, and people-to-people connections between the UK and the other countries of Europe. Assuming that we leave the EU this year as expected, that will only strengthen our commitment to the UK’s cultural ties with Europe. It will be important to continue to argue for ease of movement for students, academics, and researchers. And to keep on making the case for increased cultural, educational, and scientific partnership with the countries of Europe – and of course the rest of the world. 

Science is an international language: a lingua franca that connects people regardless of nationality or political affiliation. Its purpose is to discover fundamental truths and expand the field of knowledge – for the benefit of everyone

Science is a core activity for the British Council. Language learning is another central British Council area of work and expertise – and perhaps there is a connection. Science is an international language: a lingua franca that connects people regardless of nationality or political affiliation. Its purpose is to discover fundamental truths and expand the field of knowledge – for the benefit of everyone. 

Scientists have never been more important to society than they are today. The aim is that Newton Fund scholars and other early career scientists gain a deeper insight into the UK’s science policy; and that in the best scientific tradition they will use the experience to reflect and question, to analyse and hypothesise - and to help to shape the future.” 

This Speech is an edited version of the one given by James Cronin, Trustee, British Council

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