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Co-operating on a new image for science and research

Dr Lloyd AndersonDr Lloyd Anderson is Director of Science, Engineering and the Environment at the British Council, UK, with responsibility for setting global policy in the sector. The British Council spends £8 million (approximately €12 million) a year on science activities and exchange programmes in 60 countries.

The British Council has a long history of supporting international co-operation in science and technology. What programmes do you have in place to develop scientific exchange and co-operation?

For a long time, the Council’s science work was dominated by schemes assisting academic exchanges on a bilateral basis – allowing professors from UK and the target country to spend time in each other’s laboratories. The funding only paid for the travel and subsistence costs of the two sides, making it a type of mobility scheme. The problem was that only relatively small numbers of the more well-established scientists benefited, so the impact was considered rather limited. We have now moved away from these academic exchange or links schemes to a centrally funded system called ‘International Networking for Young Scientists’ (INYS). This is an initiative that supports the Council’s objective of “nurturing mutually beneficial relationships with other countries” by encouraging and assisting the mobility of, and direct contact between, young researchers. It supports face-to-face meetings between young scientists and engineers from the UK and other countries, for an exchange of ideas, knowledge and information, plus the building of international connections to assist the innovation process.

In addition, we have developed a website called SISTER (Support for International Science, Technology and Engineering Research). This website tells you all the major sources of funding available for international research, training and mobility, conferences and workshops, and visits, and links to relevant pages on the websites of funding organisations.

While many young European scientists seem to be lured away from the continent, Europe is still a popular destination for highly skilled researchers from some less-developed parts of the world. Is this form of ‘brain gain’ sustainable in the long term?

Such an approach is unsustainable – and unethical – in the longer term because it fails to recognise that foreign governments, and their science ministries, talk about the need for symmetrical co-operation, where each country has something to learn and gain from the other. It is no longer about a one-way flow of experts or training in pursuit of capacity building. Countries want to be part of the global knowledge economy which involves holding on to their skilled people in the pursuit of new knowledge. Such an agenda, based on mutually beneficial relationships, is essential to the growth of a global knowledge economy, and the concept of mutuality provides a win-win situation in which the EU is seen as the facilitator of international networks and a global hub for the knowledge economy.

Scientific exchange and co-operation programmes funded with public money ultimately rely on public support for science and technology in the wider context. What needs to be done to ensure that the public considers expenditure on science to be worthwhile?

The public have to see the benefits and feel that scientific exchange and co-operation is a worthwhile way of spending their hard-earned taxes. Too often in the past, scientists have simply taken public money to pursue collaborative research with colleagues in other countries, published the results of that research in a specialist technical journal, and moved on. When the Council was funding academic links programmes around the world, we rarely got to hear the good news stories from the scientists involved – that made the programmes difficult for us to defend when budgets were being cut.

There needs to be a proviso associated with the terms of funding that insists the scientists carry out some form of knowledge dissemination to the wider society, be it through talks in schools, public lectures, café scientifique-style evenings, writing popular stories for the press or simply talking to a journalist.

What are the main drivers behind young people in Europe turning their backs on a scientific career?

I think that young people do not see the relevance of science to their everyday lives and experience. It is seen as a sphere of work that orbits at some distance from the rest of culture and society and is not ‘cool’. It is difficult and hard work, and the rewards, in terms of status, salary and career possibilities, are poor. Scientists are not looked up to in the consumer society, and are viewed as somewhat antisocial and suspicious. Of course, young people do interact with technology and science every day, for example when they use mobile phones, go clubbing, surf the internet, listen to CDs or play computer games. For the young, technology is culture, but the perception that basic science is ‘unhip’ starts out at school where science is somewhat separate and isolated from other, more social activities.

And so what can be done to increase the overall attractiveness of science and technology careers in Europe?

I can think of four major steps we could take. First, we need to get away from the old-fashioned image of the traditional sciences – physics, chemistry, mathematics – and the ultimate goal of academic pursuit, working away in a dusty laboratory or office somewhere. We need to offer more exciting hybrid undergraduate degrees, let’s say in engineering and design, or digital innovation and new media, where young people can be truly transdisciplinary and mix ideas from computer programming with story telling, design, advertising, film, optical electronics and so on. These people will become ideas factories and go on to set up or work in innovative, modern flexible companies and businesses. Culture Lab, a British Council webzine “where science meets culture”, explores how new technology has affected film, design, music, fashion and digital culture. All the stories featured have their source in individual UK scientists imaging the world differently. They’re a community of people who look at the world with a common attitude of “why not?”.

Second, we need to use role models more, for example by encouraging young researchers to go out there and say how fulfilling, exciting and challenging their jobs are, or by getting the more established scientists to be inspirational, to be thought-provoking popular ‘celebrities’.

Third, we need to worry about how science comes across in the media, in newspapers and on TV. It should be seen more as a lively and exciting field of work which is very much a part of culture and society rather than for a boring or ultra-clever minority.

Lastly, we need to be making scientific research a more social, vibrant and exciting community to be a part of, where there is the possibility of meeting new people through networking and the chance of travel to interesting places. If we can do this, young people who come into science will stay and enjoy it.

last update: 08-07-2004