Minister Willetts in the Windy City
My main role, and that of the entire UK Science and Innovation Network (SIN), which includes about 90 officers in 28 countries all over the world, is to promote UK science abroad and inform UK policy on scientific advances overseas. Here, at the British Consulate in Chicago, I am working on one of the strongest scientific partnerships that exists: 90,000 co-authored UK-US papers between 2008-2012, and four shared Nobel Prizes in scientific fields over the last 12 years. And the UK, with just over 3 per cent of the world's spending on research and development, produces more than 6 per cent of the world's publications and 16 per cent of the world's most highly-cited papers, which makes it all the more important that the UK and the US continue to collaborate on science and research.
David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science, is our Network's biggest champion in building research relationships between UK and US universities and research institutions. He was invited to Chicago by the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) for their annual meeting. The AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society and their conference attracts 8,000 scientists, policy-makers and journalists from across the globe. The meeting provides an ideal forum for the Science and Innovation Network to promote our work and build new links, and gave the Minister the opportunity to promote UK expertise in the "Eight Great Technologies" and encourage UK/US partnerships - which he did in a keynote address to newly elected AAAS Fellows. In his address, the Minister highlighted three strengths that underpin science and innovation in the UK: the UK's history and great scientific tradition, creativity - particularly important when funding is tight - and geographical clustering of research excellence.
Beyond his engagements at the conference, Mr Willetts took the opportunity to take in a snapshot of the huge amount of science going on around Chicago. The Midwest more broadly is a fantastic region for US science and attracts more federal research dollars (over $8 billion) than any other region in the SIN US network - this means that I am never short of things to do, but is a major challenge in keeping up with developments across the region. In Chicago alone there are two major research universities - Northwestern University and University of Chicago - both of which Minister Willetts was able to visit along with two national laboratories - Fermilab and Argonne. In fact, whilst visiting Argonne the Minister was presented with a small piece of graphite from the first ever nuclear reactor, built in the bowels of a University of Chicago Athletic Stadium in 1942. The Minister and his delegation were delighted with this gift, and for me, just getting to see this piece of history first-hand was an unexpected thrill!
It was fascinating to attend meetings with the Minister and his delegation, which included Professor Martyn Poliakoff (Vice President of the Royal Society) and Professor Mary Bownes (University of Edinburgh), and a great privilege to be able to contribute local knowledge and advice to important discussion about where the UK can best engage with the US research community. It was especially interesting to hear the Minister promoting the £600m UK investment into Eight Great Technologies where the UK can have a leading global role and which will drive future economic growth. With investments through the Technology Strategy Board and Catapult Centres, the UK is taking on some of the risk in taking technologies closer to market which will help stimulate the innovation ecosystem.
The Minister's panel at AAAS on science communications had some star power as well. Actor Alan Alda (of M*A*S*H fame), simply walked in and sat down in the audience, much to our delight! And Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, sat on the panel and enlightened the audience with the first reliable way to cure intractable hiccups.
The Eight Great Technologies initiative really gives the US audience (and indeed the global audience) something tangible to grasp, and an understanding of how the UK is investing in science. It is a great tool for outlining how these two great scientific nations can cooperate. Indeed, just in the Midwest there is incredible expertise across all eight technologies and following Minister Willetts visit I look forward to supporting further collaboration in the future...