Making a mission impossible

September 3, 1999

The British Council has a mission that can be stated simply but is difficult to deliver: to make the UK more important in the world of culture and knowledge than it has any right to be given its size and economic importance.

Around the world it does this by promoting a baffling range of activities. Recently there have been more fashion shows and fewer chamber music concerts, more Britart and less Turner.

Now the British Council is reducing its support for British science (see page 1). As science becomes more international, the council is cutting the list of countries with which it is willing to fund exchanges of scientific personnel.

These programmes pay for visits that can lead to, or sustain, larger international collaborations. As well as positive intellectual outcomes, there can be financial ones. Bodies such as the European Commission like to fund multinational research groups and cash put into fostering them should be money well spent.

Cutting back on science to preserve money for other kinds of culture suggests the British Council clings to an old-fashioned idea of creativity.

It also threatens the council's success as a focus for selling British higher education abroad. Potential students will be encouraged if it is clear our universities are world-class research institutions.

It seems the real problem with the research visits system is that it looks like a relic of the vanished era of the British Council when sending Britons abroad was regarded as a good thing in its own right.

However, it appears that the British Council underestimates the positive effects the scheme has had over the years and will go on having if it is funded adequately. British scientists are favoured as collaborators by a wide range of researchers around the world. The British Council has been key to this success and is regarded as a partner of choice by British and overseas academics and by learned societies and academies.

The council is reducing research visits at a time when UK academics are becoming more rather than less attractive to foreign partners. In chemistry, medicine and economics, the UK has recently had its best spell in decades for Nobel prizes. Financially, the Joint Infrastructure Fund and other new money means Britain has better-resourced scientists than ever before. Ensuring they are seen on the campuses of overseas universities is a solid investment in British prestige.

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