Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Research without borders: why international cooperation is good for STEM

I've just finished reading Bryan Sykes' (okay, I know he's a bit controversial) The Seven Daughters of Eve, about the development of mitochondrial DNA research for population genetics. One chapter mentioned Dr Sykes' discovery of the parallel work of Hans-J├╝rgen Bandelt, who's Mathematics Genealogy Project provided a structure diagram perfectly suited to explaining Sykes' own evolutionary branching results. This discovery occurred largely by chance, suggesting that small research groups must rely either on serendipity or have knowledge of the latest professional papers in order to find other teams who's work might be useful.

This implies that the more international the character of scientific and technological research, the more likely there will be such fortuitous occurrences. Britain's tortuous path out of the European Union has led various organisations on both sides of the Channel to claim that this can only damage British STEM research. The Francis Crick Institute, a London-based biomedical research centre that opened last year, has staff originating from over seventy nations. This size and type of establishment cannot possibly rely on being supplied with researchers from just one nation. Yet EU scientists resident in Britain have felt 'less welcome' since the Brexit referendum, implying a potential loss of expertise in the event of a mass withdrawal.

In recent years, European Union research donations to the UK have exceeded Britain's own contributions by £3 billion, meaning that the additional £300 million newly announced for research and development over the coming four years is only ten percent of what the EU has provided - and the UK Government is clearly looking to the private sector to make up the shortfall. It should also be recognised that although there are high numbers of non-British nationals working in Britain's STEM sector, the country also has a fair number of its own STEM professionals working overseas in EU nations.

The United Kingdom is home to highly expensive, long-term projects that require overseas funding and expertise, including the Oxfordshire-based Joint European Torus nuclear fusion facility. British funding and staff also contribute to numerous big-budget international projects, from the EU-driven Copernicus Earth observation satellite programme to the non-EU CERN. The latter is best-known for the Large Hadron Collider, the occasional research home of physicist and media star Brian Cox (how does he find the time?) and involves twenty-two key nations plus researchers from more than eighty other countries. Despite the intention to stay involved in at least the non-EU projects, surveys suggest that post-Brexit there will be greater numbers of British STEM professionals moving abroad. Indeed, in the past year some American institutions have actively pursued the notion of recruiting more British scientists and engineers.

Of course, the UK is far from unique in being involved in so many projects requiring international cooperation. Thirty nations are collaborating on the US-based Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE); the recently-successful Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) involves staff from eighteen countries; and the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project utilises researchers of more than twenty nationalities. Although the USA has a large population when compared to European nations, one report from 2004 states that approaching half of US physicists were born overseas. Clearly, these projects are deeply indebted to non-nationals.

It isn't just STEM professionals that rely on journeying cross-border, either. Foreign science and technology students make up considerable percentages in some developed countries: in recent years, over 25% of the USA's STEM graduate students and even higher numbers of its master's degree and doctorate students were not born there. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several European countries have similar statistics, with Indian and Chinese students making up a large proportion of those studying abroad.

As a small nation with severely limited resources for research, New Zealand does extremely well out of the financial contributions from foreign students. Each PhD student spends an average of NZ$175,000 on fees and living costs, never mind additional revenue from the likes of family holidays, so clearly the economics alone make sense. Non-nationals can also introduce new perspectives and different approaches, potentially lessening inflexibility due to cultural mind sets. In recent years, two New Zealand-based scientists, microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles and nanotechnologist Dr Michelle Dickinson (A.K.A. Nanogirl) have risen to prominence thanks to their fantastic science communication work, including with children. Both were born in the UK, but New Zealand sci-comm would be substantially poorer without their efforts. Could it be that their sense of perspective homed in on a need that locally-raised scientists failed to recognise?

This combination of open borders for STEM professionals and international collaboration on expensive projects proves if anything that science cannot be separated from society as a whole. Publically-funded research requires not only a government willing to see beyond its short-term spell in office but a level of state education that satisfies the general populace as to why public money should be granted for such undertakings. Whilst I have previously discussed the issues surrounding the use of state funding for mega-budget research with no obvious practical application, the merits of each project should still be discussed on an individual basis. In addition, and as a rule of thumb, it seems that the larger the project, the almost certain increase in the percentage of non-nationals required to staff it.

The anti-Brexit views of prominent British scientists such as Brian Cox and the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees of Ludlow, are well known. Let's just hope that the rising xenophobia and anti-immigration feeling that led to Brexit doesn't stand for 'brain exit'. There's been enough of that already and no nation - not even the USA - has enough brain power or funding to go it alone on the projects that really need prompt attention (in case you're in any doubt, alternative energy sources and climate change mitigation spring to mind). Shortly before the Brexit referendum, Professor Stephen Hawking said: "Gone are the days when we could stand on our own, against the world. We need to be part of a larger group of nations." Well if that's not obvious, I don't know what is!