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In the wake of Brexit, the UK must pursue more international science collaborations

ByBen Thomas

Oct 12, 2017

Recently, the UK has announced two big international collaborations on science projects, and one on a scientific relationship. International collaborations have been increasing for many years, as work performed in collaboration has been shown to have a great impact and builds links between countries. However, with Brexit looming, the UK will need to do more to foster these collaborations.

The first of these recent big collaborations is known as the DUNE project (Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment), in which the UK has agreed to collaborate with the United States to build a massive, sensitive, subatomic particle detector in South Dakota. The purpose of the project is to study neutrinos – one of the most abundant subatomic particles, similar to an electron but without an electric charge – which are constantly produced by the sun.

To give you an idea of the scale, around 65 million neutrinos pass through one square centimetre on earth every second and until recently were thought to have no mass. However, with the discovery that they do have mass, the DUNE project has been launched to understand their interactions, how they affect galaxy formation, and why the universe is made of matter instead of antimatter.

The second of these is the UK’s own project to launch a small radar satellite, known as NovaSAR, of which Australia has become a partner. NovaSAR is much smaller and lighter than traditional satellites, and will use radar technology – a system that uses radio waves to detect objects, can penetrate clouds, and doesn’t require daylight to work. With this, they plan to monitor forests in the tropics and at a high altitude, to support disaster relief (via sensing flood water) and to monitor shipping routes. The deal gives Australia a share of task setting and data-acquisitioning capability of the system.

But despite these, there are looming problems.  

Even the announcement that the UK and the USA have reached a deal to develop a special scientific relationship, a cause for celebration for many, is undermined by Donald Trump’s proposed cuts for science funding. Trump is proposing to slash the budget of the National Institutes of Health – the American agency of biomedical and public health research – by $7.7 billion, more than a fifth of the budget.

While in the EU, Britain has benefited from funding and collaboration; since 2007, British science has won 22.4 per cent – or €1.67 billion – of European Research Council grants, more than any other country. A significant concern of British science, which the British government has yet to answer, is what will happen to funding when Britain leaves the EU.

With research funding reduced, and opportunities lost because of Brexit, where should the UK be looking for collaboration? In recent years, industry has been seeking partnerships with developing economies for collaboration, including India and China; despite their growth rates being hindered by the financial crash, their economies are growing faster than anywhere in the world.

Whatever occurs, the UK must pursue more collaborations to ensure its science is the highest quality.

Image: EU2016NL

By Ben Thomas

PhD Student in the British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiovascular Science, interested in all things science.

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