Mar 27 2014 | Posted by SSSandy

David Willetts champions competition and collaboration in science and technology

Taken from the March 2014 International Unit newsletter

Researcher mobility is not a brain drain but something to be celebrated, reports Jack Westwood

In a keynote address to newly elected Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago, the Rt Hon David Willetts encouraged a spirit of competition and collaboration in science and technology, and underlined the importance of researcher mobility – “not some sort of alarming brain drain”, but something to be celebrated. This was an important message to a key audience; the AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society and its annual conference attracts 8,000 scientists, policy-makers and journalists from across the globe

Chicago, and the greater Midwest region, attracts more federal research dollars than any other region in the US. Mr Willetts and his delegation were able to see the evidence of this success during visits to local universities and research facilities. Alongside UK delegates Professor Martyn Poliakoff (Vice President, The Royal Society) and Professor Mary Bownes (University of Edinburgh), the Minister visited both major research universities in Chicago Northwestern and University of Chicago – as well as Argonne National Laboratory. At the Argonne Laboratory, whilst touring the world's 5th fastest supercomputer and the brightest X-ray source in the western hemisphere, Mr Willetts was presented with a small piece of graphite from the first ever nuclear reactor, built in the bowels of a University of Chicago Athletic Stadium in 1942. For portions of the visit, the Minister was also accompanied by “The Naked Scientists” who along with SIN produced an “Audio Diary” of the visit.

UK expertise and investment in the “Eight Great Technologies” was a key point of reference for the visit, serving to demonstrate the way in which UK Government is investing strategically in specific areas of scientific research seen as pivotal for future UK competitiveness. During his trip, Mr Willetts enthused about the responsibility of government in shouldering a proportion of the risks inherent in innovation, and spoke about the importance of the UK's Technology Strategy Board and Catapult Centres in bringing technologies closer to market (and bridging the so-called “Valley of Death“). Taking space research as a particular example, the Minister highlighted UK expertise in small, lightweight satellites but underlined the importance of international collaboration in getting these satellites in orbit, in view of the UK decision to opt out of space launch technology over the last 30 years. In the Minister's words, “it is no surprise that a Brit wrote 'a hitchhikers guide to the galaxy'!”

Science and Innovation are key drivers of prosperity and growth globally, but particularly so for the UK, which is the strongest performing country in the G8 in terms of field-weighted citation impact and citations per unit of gross expenditure on R&D. International collaboration between UK researchers and their overseas counterparts is vital to this success, and will be vital to maintaining UK scientific excellence in the future.

The UK Science and Innovation Network (SIN) is comprised of about 90 officers based in British Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates in 28 countries around the world. Its role is to promote UK science abroad, to facilitate trans-national scientific partnerships and to inform UK policy on scientific advances overseas. Based at the British Consulate in Chicago, my role is to promote the UK-US science relationship – the strongest and most productive such partnership in the world. Our two countries have co-authored 90,000 joint papers since 2008, and shared four Nobel Prizes in scientific fields in the last 12 years alone. Building on this close partnership, this week UK defence minister Philip Dunne MP brought UK and US researchers closer together still with a new UK-US agreement on science and technology collaboration for Defence, which will focus particularly on cyber-security, space research, and energy use. This is a particularly important step for UK-US science, particularly when we consider that the US Department of Defense R&D budget is larger than the entire defence budget of any other nation except China.

The US and UK play an important role in strengthening innovation globally. The UK-US Global Innovation Initiative (GII), launched in 2013, is a joint effort funded by the US Department of State, the UK's Department for Business Innovation and Skills, and the British Council. Its aim is to support new trilateral research collaborations which address global challenges, and which bring together researchers in the UK, US and specified partner countries (Brazil, China, India, Indonesia).

Jack Westwood is British Vice-Consul, Science and Innovation, Chicago. The network of UK Science and Innovation officers around the globe serves as the UK's 'eyes and ears' on the ground, reporting on the latest research and innovation advancements abroad and maintaining UK scientific excellence by helping UK researchers to work with the best internationally.

Jack Westwood is the Vice Consul, Science and Innovation British Consulate-General Chicago.