Going public will bolster global profile of UK science

October 8, 1999

Lloyd Anderson surveys the British Council's efforts to foster partnerships and raise awareness of UK creativity

The United Kingdom is highly regarded for education, but it falls into a second division in its reputation for scientific innovation. This worrying conclusion is based on early results from a Mori survey of young professionals in 13 countries as diverse as Brazil, Germany and Egypt.

The survey, commissioned by the British Council, shows that 55-65 per cent of those asked agree that France and Britain have a strong reputation in science and 14-17 per cent disagree.

When asked if Germany, Japan and the United States have a strong reputation, 75-95 per cent of respondents tend to agree or strongly agree and only 1-7 per cent disagree. In connected focus groups, the UK was noted only as being associated with "scary" science, such as genetic engineering.

The full survey findings will be published in November, but there is already evidence of a big gap between overseas perceptions of British science and its very real achievements. The UK produces 6 per cent of the world's science with only 1 per cent of the world's population. It is second only to the US in winning major internationally recognised prizes and is the partner of choice for research collaboration in 11 of the 14 other EU member states.

The British Council must ensure that British scientific successes are recognised by a wider international audience.

In a separate study, major stakeholders, including the research councils, The Royal Society, Whitehall, senior academics and the private sector, were asked what would be the main benefits of campaigns to raise awareness of British creativity and innovation in science overseas. Their responses fell into five categories: research collaboration and funding; attracting foreign students; export promotion and inward investment; publicity for their organisation; and public understanding of science.

Under the banner "partnership through science", the British Council is focusing on two main strands: "excellence in international science" and "understanding science in society". The tools for delivery against both of these themes are the council's partnership programmes (exchanges), conferences and seminars, publications and the internet, and festivals and exhibitions.

To an extent it must be horses for courses. An effective way of promoting British science in Germany is through partnership programmes, in Thailand through information provision, and in India through science festivals. It is too polarised a view to suggest that the British Council has simply switched from being a funding source for academics to being an advertising agency for UK plc. We are neither, and the polarisation (dropping partnership programmes in favour of festivals and exhibitions) is unhelpful because all our work concerns promoting partnership through science using a variety of means.

An evaluation of the council's exchange programmes reveals that in all, or nearly all, 22 countries, the top aims are to promote new partnerships with young researchers and to facilitate technology transfer, training and bids to major funding agencies. The achievements in all countries include strengthened partnerships, good value for money, excellent and innovative science, access to key science policy figures and an effective showcase for British science. All countries believe that the programmes have a long-term future, and the partner organisations are keen to continue.

The problem in carrying out activities designed to raise awareness is making an impact across a wide section of society. The council's exchange programmes have traditionally concentrated on a small number in the research community. When faced with a limited budget and impact as the performance indicator, one-to one links can be viewed as representing a poor return. Hence the "understanding science in society" theme. If scientists with council awards were to write popular articles as well as technical ones, and engage in discussion of the scientific issues behind their research, there would be a ripple effect, benefiting both the scientific and wider communities.

Lloyd Anderson, director science, British Council.

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