The new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology needs to drive breakthroughs in scientific research abroad, as well as at home
The great human and planetary issues of our time — from climate change to outbreaks of infectious disease — require collective human responses, with science at the core.
British science is world-leading in many fields, but in tackling these global challenges we need to work with researchers on the frontline if humanity is to succeed. This means opening pathways for international scientific collaboration, but it also means funding and supporting able scientists overseas with new equipment, training and financial resources for research.
For example, we need to support epidemiologists conducting surveillance work in communities with high risks of spillover of zoonotic viruses, like avian flu. We must empower scientists working in fragile coastal and dryland environments like Bangladesh and Kenya to monitor the early signs of impending crises caused by climate change. We have to share artificial intelligence tools with clinicians in rural, low-resource settings to detect cancer early, and to develop and refine those tools on the basis of their findings.
In the face of the cuts to the overseas development budget, the new Secretary of State, Michelle Donelan, will have to show resolve to adopt this approach, but she can point to benefits for Britain too. Establishing strong ties with overseas research institutions will yield important opportunities for British researchers to retain their global leadership in key fields by working closely with a widening cohort of peers.
Ms Donelan would also do well to draw on experience from her previous portfolio at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to see how initiatives like the Cultural Protection Fund, and the British Council more generally, have galvanised collaboration between cultural institutions in Britain and abroad to protect at-risk cultural heritage and support emerging artists and creative industries.
At Community Jameel, we have seen first-hand the advances achieved by establishing mechanisms to support collaboration between researchers in Britain and counterparts overseas. The Jameel Observatory in Nairobi brings together researchers in Kenya with those at the University of Edinburgh and the British charity Save the Children to develop early warning systems for the onset of famine and hunger. The Jameel Fund has created joint teams across Imperial College London and King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia to find new ways to fight coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2.
As Ms Donelan gets her feet behind her new desk in Whitehall, establishing a mechanism for funding overseas scientific partnerships should be a priority. As the world faces rising threats from climate change, disease and other challenges, the international approach must not be an afterthought. We do not have time to lose.