The new Budget brought with it big pledges for UK science. A near doubling of the R&D pot to £22bn and the creation of the UK’s very own ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), a concept borrowed from the US that’s aimed at realising novel science, big thinking and industries that don’t yet exist.
The principle behind ARPA is to create a place where the only rule is to let the scientists, be scientists. For the UK’s science and research communities, these are ambitious projects, with a view of the future and an understanding of the progress science can deliver for society that we welcome.
However, I would caution that these initiatives can be no substitutes for an outward-facing science industry and no reason to start only looking inwards.
For some it may be a tired cliché, but for scientists it’s a truism: we stand on the shoulders of giants. We are united by the continued pursuit of progress, to further civilisation and to enrich our understanding of this planet and others. We are committed to discover what makes us human. These are the values that made science the world’s first truly global community.
In the UK there have been mounting fears that the decision to leave the European Union poses a serious threat to the status quo. Will our universities, institutions and businesses lose access to the funding, talent and innovation that the EU provides? Would we be going it alone?
For many months, there have been significantly more questions than answers on our international position, but last week, we received a degree of welcomed news, with the UK government vowing that it would push for involvement in the Horizon Europe project – a €100bn fund for research and innovation to succeed Horizon 2020.
The significance of the decision from No.10 should not be underestimated. The power of collaboration in science remains as prevalent today as it did with the first meeting of minds at the Solvay Conference that transformed our understanding of physics, to the creation of the internet at CERN – maybe even more so.
The world is currently facing a series of challenges on an unprecedented scale – chief among which is climate change and the irreversible impacts of human activity on the planet.
With such issues afoot, there is no time for scientific isolationism. Halting climate change will take a herculean effort at the highest level and that means galvanising the international scientific community around the same end. If the UK is going to have a tangible stake in the future of innovation to tackle major global issues and be on the right side of history, close alignment with EU scientists will likely prove mission critical.
For climate change in particular, the size of the problem – affecting almost every facet of the economy and science alike – demands that we pool both funding and expertise across entire continents, if not globally, to stand a chance of moving the needle.
The EU is currently undergoing the Copernicus Space Programme, launching a constellation of earth observation satellites into orbit that will deliver the best remote sensing data that we have ever had on our environment.
One of the proudest moments of my career was being part of this ground-breaking chance to save the planet. M Squared, the Glasgow headquartered developer of photonics and quantum technologies that I co-founded, got the call to work alongside others from across the EU on efforts to observe and measure atmospheric pollution. This was collaboration in the true scientific sense of the word – global teams united around a singular goal, each bringing something distinct to the table, and building a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
In the near future at least, the UK will not be a in a position to be running space missions on this scale independently or firing dozens of satellites into space to report back on efforts to curb emissions. The danger that remains is if the EU and the UK fail to effectively legislate and broker an agreement that not only guarantees UK involvement in the Horizon programme, but that we keep our seat at the table across EU science.
There is little debate amongst the scientific community that the UK benefits from participation on joint collaboration initiatives, along with funding for our own domestic programmes and for the advance of scientific understanding. Yet, the underlying principle is much larger. The very foundations of what we know of the world, are the products of minds from every corner of the planet.
In 2020, with humanity facing its greatest challenge yet in climate change – we as a species are going to need to present a truly united front. And that means within the upcoming Brexit negotiations, we do everything we can to promote the power of collaboration – committing ourselves to work in Europe to deliver the progress that we’re going to need to see. The risk is that we lose sight of this bigger picture in the heat of the upcoming trade talks – meaning potential and future possibilities are derailed.
Remaining aligned on the Horizon Europe programme is a great first move, but if science is to deliver the answers – which it must – the UK must fundamentally remain at the heart of global understanding, advancements and real-world deployment of frontier science and technology. Our planet depends on it.
Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE is CEO and co-founder of M Squared