Science is one of the UK’s greatest assets

Science is an important tool to build bridges between nations and a great asset for the UK in cultural diplomacy. So said Lloyd Anderson, Director of Science at the British Council, when he joined the Policy Lunchbox network earlier this week to discuss how his organisation uses science to promote the UK overseas.

The UK is second only to the US in terms of the number of Nobel Prize winners this country has produced and is first in the G7 group of nations in terms of research quality – beating the US on the impact ratings of research output. The UK produces 8% of the world’s science outputs, compared to the US’ 30% – so punches significantly above its weight. However the UK cannot afford to be complacent. The so-called ‘BRIC’ nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China, along with Mexico, are rapidly catching up to both the UK and US in terms of research output. In order to increase their impact, researchers from the UK need to collaborate with scientists from these and other nations: for every international author added to a research paper, 3% is added to the impact of that piece of work.

The British Council was established by Royal Charter in 1934, to encourage scientific, technological and cultural co-operation between the UK and other countries. The original rationale behind the establishment of the Council was to counter Nazi propoganda – promoting the UK in countries where it was felt that fascism could gain a foothold. Now, the British Council sees itself as a ‘cultural relationships organisation’ and is supported by a £188m grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office each year and has a turnover of £753m.

The science activities of the Council are funded by the FCO grant. Explaining the rationale for its engagement in Science, Lloyd outlined the mission statement of the Council: “Science provides a common platform for collaboration and discussion that brings people together across deep cultural divides. [It provides] a universal language [which encourages] mutual understanding and trust and helps people in the UK and other countries to work together to address global challenges.” In other words, science is an international endeavour, critical to prosperity and is therefore an extremely useful tool in diplomacy.

In communicating about science, the British Council is trying to reach three main tiers of audience, characterised by Lloyd as ‘T1, T2 and T3’: leaders (policy-makers/ ministers); influencers (scientists, innovators, science communicators and science educators), and ‘aspirants’ (early-career researchers, students and wider publics). The Council run Global Policy Dialogues – knowledge exchange partnerships and science and innovation themed events.

Given the high number of students who come from abroad to study as graduates in the UK, outward mobility in the UK is extremely poor and is getting worse. The British Council maintain a web page listing all of the funding sources which students and researchers in the UK can access if they wish to move abroad to work or study, but take up remains low. Those around the room suggested that this situation could change given the high cost of studying as an undergraduate, and potentially in time as a postgraduate, in this country. Lloyd speculated however that international experience may be less prized on academic CVs today, with stability and publication output acting as more of a driver to academic careers – stimulated perhaps by the Research Assessment Exercise’s emphasis on publication record.

Nevertheless, exciting opportunities do exist for those researchers wishing to engage in international collaboration. BIRAX – the British Israel Exchange Programme focusing on regenerative medicine and the Opening Doors programme, getting young post-doctoral researchers from different countries to come together to discuss a particular scientific issue, such as stem cells, or climate change are two such examples. Meanwhile, the European Commission runs the EURAXESS website as a resource for young researchers, providing personal assistance and support in navigating daily life in a new country.

Finally, Lloyd provided an overview of the British Council’s work to engage the public with science, including ‘Cafe Scientifique’ events and Fame Lab International (the ‘X factor’ for scientists!), run in collaboration with the Cheltenham Science Festival.

The British Council has four science advisers in its UK office and a network of scientific specialists worldwide. The outcome of all of this work is to increase recognition of the UK as a source of expertise and a partner for skills development. Science is one of the UK’s most attractive assets and Lloyd made it clear that there is plenty of scope for Learned Societies and NGOs to work with the British Council to foster an understanding of the importance of science worldwide.

Policy Lunchbox is a network for those working in science policy, maintained by the British Ecological Society and the Biochemical Society. For information about our forthcoming events, see the Policy Lunchbox website.