The United Kingdom alone

As the UK searches for new international partners James Coe offers some travel advice.

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

It is a longstanding ambition of the government for the UK to be recognised as a global science superpower.

It is an alliterative platitude but it speaks to a sentiment that is widely held by policy makers across the UK.

The sentiment is that whether it is security, soft power, improving global health outcomes, or the UK’s economy, science is one of the few national assets where the UK can rival any global competitor.

The UK as both a collaborator and a competitor walks a line of science as a tool for advancing global interests and using its research capacity as a bulwark against threats to national security.

Science is therefore a political tool. Nationally, universities, researchers, and R&D intensive businesses, are vehicles through which the government has explicitly built the basis of its levelling up agenda. Internationally, reduction in funding for ODA and the putative withdrawal from Horizon are not only bad for science but weaken the UK’s capacity for influence in the world.

Location, location, location

This international influence is maintained through a number of mechanisms. For example, participation in multilateral research partnerships allows the UK to shape global research agendas with programmes that have reach and funding that go beyond its own capacity. Attracting international investment to the UK whether in research programmes, business, or infrastructure, and in doing so welding the UK’s interests to that of other countries is another mechanism. The inverse is also true. The UK makes investment abroad to achieve wider social and economic goods. Other countries also adopt this model. China, arguably the UK’s most important collaborator and competitor in global research, has through its Belt and Road Initiative invested in worldwide innovation capacity as a means of strengthening its global position. More subtly, there is also the research taking place in the UK that has global benefits that strengthens the UK’s soft power. This includes work in science for the good of humanity and the exertion of the UK’s cultural power through work in the media, the arts, and so on.

Key to the exercise of any and all of this political power is partnership. The challenge for the UK is that being a global science superpower is not simply about building its own research capacity but finding the partners whom it may work with on a global scale to strengthen its research economy and international influence.

A place in the sun

As George Freeman looks at his world map and pushes in pins and places arrows for potential partners and projects and as he books his itinerary to fly around the globe to make new bilateral deals he can do so with comfort that the UK’s research is truly world leading. His bigger challenge is that there are enormous political compromises in finding the partners to power global Britain.

Let’s start off close to home. Association to Horizon is still the government’s first choice but the longer the UK remains unassociated the more difficult association becomes. This is because the more time passes the more research partnerships will dwindle, the more universities will make alternative plans, and the fewer programmes will be available. Simply, the world and science will not wait for issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol to be resolved and until it is resolved association to Horizon looks unlikely.

Further afield China is the UK’s third biggest single-country partner for collaborative research. It is also the world’s second largest economy. There is no future for global research where China is not a major international force but the UK has had a mixed relationship with research collaborations. Set against the massive volume of work taking place are security concerns highlighted in the Integrated Review and through statements by ministers and MPs, and dozens of column inches by newspapers and think tanks. The government has shown that it will intervene to block research deals with China where they believe they run contra to national interests. There is also a wider global issue over IP theft but this is not an issue exclusively confined to China.

Elsewhere the US will remain a significant and reliable partner. Beyond this historic relationship the difficulty of both global multilateral partnerships and a stable bilateral partnership with China will force Britain to seek out bespoke research deals across the globe to rebalance its pool of partners. Last week we saw one potential approach in action.

Wish you were here

Building on ongoing overtures, the Minister for the Indo-Pacific, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, has returned from Japan with a set of new announcements to usher in an era of expanded UK-Japan collaborations. At the basis of this relationship there are a few features that look at an expanded research ecosystem which could be a blueprint for deals with other countries

  • There is a stated values match between the two countries
  • Research agreements are tied to wider security relationships acknowledging the interdependency of the two
  • There is shared infrastructure investment around R&D and business
  • There are strong mobility links in place including the mobility of students
  • There is investment in research projects that speak to the strengths of both countries. For example, there is collaborative funding in neuroscience research aimed at tackling the health issues of ageing populations

As a blueprint for future relationships it contains a lot which the wider science community can get behind. It is forward looking into global problems, there are clear considerations of ethics and compatibility, and there is a mobility element that speaks to a global workforce.

The bigger challenge into the future is whether this model is replicable, with so few trade offs either economically or politically, with many other partners.

Outside of the world’s biggest multi-partner research framework Global Britain is reliant on an era of new bilateral partnerships blooming. It must not only build deeper ties but it must also build them quickly.

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