Europe and its funding programs offer a rich opportunity for British science, but they are not our only partners, writes Daniel Korski
Nestled in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire lies the path to interstellar discoveries. It’s where the SuperCam instrument was built, which analyses the mineralogy and chemistry of rocks and soil on Mars. It’s so accurate it can identify the chemical and mineral makeup of areas on Mars as small as a pencil point from a distance of 20 feet.
The gold-looking camera that perches atop the Perseverance rover was built by the British RAL Space Centre in partnership with NASA for the Mars 2020 mission, one of many scientific collaborations between the UK and the US. The team who worked on the camera came from all over the world, including all over Europe, but the UK-US partnership was at the core.
It tells a story of British science. That by sitting in between many different scientific communities, the UK – with its world-class universities, sizeable public and private funding, and cultural open-mindedness – has placed itself in a unique position globally.
More scientists from countries such as India and Korea head to the UK than anywhere else in Europe. A study by UNESCO found that approximately 56,000 Indian scientists and researchers are working in the UK; in contrast, Germany has around 31,000 Indian scientists.
This global scientific position is often neglected in discussions about the UK’s ongoing relationship with the EU’s science programmes, which is an unresolved issue stemming from Brexit.
There is no doubt that participating in the European Union’s Horizon programmes would benefit the UK’s scientific community, and it is very welcome that the Windsor Framework has allowed engagement on this to begin. But it is important to recognise that the UK has many deep science ties with non-EU countries as well.
The UK’s long history of scientific cooperation with the United States dates back to the 1950s. Today, the development of small modular reactors and the conversion of plutonium from military to civilian use is core to the transatlantic partnership.
What’s particularly noteworthy is that the United States is the country that published the most scientific papers with researchers from the UK. In 2019 there were over 45,000 co-authored scientific papers between the UK and the US, significantly more than any other country. Other top countries for scientific collaboration with the UK include, Germany, Japan, and China. The US is also the country with the most extensive patent cooperation; over 4,000 patents filed with a U.K. partner. Japan was next with over 1,000 patents.
India has also emerged as a key partner for the UK in recent years, particularly in the field of clean energy. In 2015, the U.K. and India established the UK-India Energy for Growth Partnership, which aims to promote sustainable economic growth and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in both countries.
In the Middle East cooperation with Israel is another important science partner for the UK. The two countries have a long history of scientific cooperation, particularly in the fields of cybersecurity, medical research, and agriculture.
Perhaps equally important is the role the UK plays in funding the commercialisation of science. The venture capital funding available in the UK outstrips that of any other European country, and is more than double the venture capital investment in life sciences than France. The UK will remain critical to European and global commercialisation no matter what, as long as the UK invests in its venture industry.
The debate about the UK’s scientific cooperation with the EU has largely neglected the strong scientific partnerships the UK has outside of the EU. There is no doubt that maintaining a role for the UK in Horizon would be beneficial. But there are many other scientific links with established and fast-growing economies that have been overlooked in the policy debate. I was for remaining in the EU and would like to see a mutually beneficial scientific relationship agreed with the bloc. But the global nature of the UK’s scientific relationships are a greater strength than the current debate has acknowledged.