Science loses out to Brit hype

September 3, 1999

British Council funding for science exchange visits is being cut back in favour of exhibitions and publicity campaigns deemed more "upbeat" by government think-tanks.

The number of joint research programmes - designed to create links and collaborations between British scientists and colleagues in universities and institutions abroad - has been reduced from 25 countries in 1997 to 19 this year.

The latest nations to be axed include Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Australia and New Zealand have already had their programmes cancelled.

The latest round of cuts will mean that 400 exchange visits between British and foreign scientists will be lost and, as a result, about 100 new international projects a year will never materialise.

Lloyd Anderson, science director of the British Council, has warned that pressure to overturn Britain's dowdy image abroad -dubbed old-fashioned and backward-looking by government thinkers - was squeezing the level of resources many overseas offices of the council were prepared to spend on exchanges.

"The science exchange programmes are under threat - the British Council has other aims than research funding," said Dr Anderson.

"Strong pressures demand improved marketing and reversing negative perceptions of UK science through activities that are able to achieve a large impact with a broader, educated audience than the research community alone," he said.

While the money in a typical JRP exchange is about Pounds 2,500 per year for each group involved, the rewards are widely held to be far more valuable, allowing scientists to establish collaborations with foreign institutions and in many cases attract far more substantial research funding from European Union coffers.

Neville Reeve, a research fellow at the policy research in engineering, science and technology unit at the University of Manchester who has reviewed JRPs for the British Council, said they represented very good value for money and were particularly useful for younger, unestablished scientists.

"There is overwhelming support for the schemes from the participants and they are considered quite prestigious," said Dr Reeve.

While the British Council would continue as an important international broker between scientific organisations, the scheme's successes had been largely overlooked, making it a target for cutbacks, said Andy Boddington of Evaluation Associates, a consultancy reviewing JRPs.

"This is due to pressures on budgets in the British Council and the need to demonstrate it is meeting its objectives to showcase British excellence and promote the English language," said Mr Boddington.

While there have been some additions to the scheme, most recently Canada and Slovakia, an overall trend of piecemeal cutbacks has gone largely unannounced, gradually eroding the scheme over the past three years.

Whole JRPs have gone, while others, such as Israel, have suffered major reductions.

Rosalind Olsen, director of the British Council in Norway, said she was disappointed to see her science programme cut.

"We are planning a social sciences workshop with the research council of Norway in February instead of 20 to 25 joint projects we used to support each year - it is all I can afford - despite the valuable research I know has been funded through the JRP scheme."

The cutting-back of JRPs was a short-sighted move that threatened to damage British science, said Peter Cotgreave, director of the pressure group Save British Science.

"If we're supposed to be rebranding Britain and promoting British innovation and creativity abroad then British science must have a significant share of the cake," he said.

Leader, page 12

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