Col­lab­o­ra­tion gives science its com­pet­i­tive edge

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Stephen Moss

At the mo­ment, in my lab­o­ra­tory at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don (UCL), I have tech­ni­cians from Greece and South Africa, an Ital­ian doc­toral stu­dent, a Greek master’s stu­dent, post­doc­toral re­searchers from Ger­many and France, and three Bri­tish staff. In the past year, alumni from Greece, the Far East and In­dia have all moved on to new po­si­tions.

Our team is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the cell bi­ol­ogy of some of the com­mon­est forms of eye dis­ease and, like many other lab­o­ra­to­ries around the coun­try, our work de­pends on a skilled and ded­i­cated multi­na­tional team.

Sci­en­tific re­search is un­usual as it is both highly col­lab­o­ra­tive and highly com­pet­i­tive. Imag­ine run­ning a marathon in which your de­sire to win is matched by a com­pul­sion to help your fel­low run­ners. In science, be­ing a good col­lab­o­ra­tor while re­tain­ing a com­pet­i­tive edge means re­cruit­ing the most tal­ented peo­ple re­gard­less of na­tion­al­ity.

The ease with which we can at­tract sci­en­tists from other Euro­pean Union mem­ber states has been crit­i­cal in keep­ing the United King­dom among the global elite, not only at se­nior and post­doc­toral lev­els, but also in the com­pe­ti­tion for doc­toral po­si­tions. EU na­tion­als would be­come in­el­i­gi­ble if Bri­tain were to leave the union.

Science is hard. Salaries tend to be low and ca­reer prospects un­pre- dictable. Rel­a­tively few high-cal­i­bre grad­u­ates are drawn into ca­reers as re­searchers. This makes it vi­tally im­por­tant that we can dip into the much larger pool of EU sci­en­tists — and in­deed those from fur­ther afield.

A “Brexit” — a Bri­tish exit from the EU — would not com­pletely cut off the sup­ply of Euro­pean scien- tists, but those want­ing to work here would have to nav­i­gate the UK’s in­creas­ingly un­friendly and bu­reau­cratic immigratio­n rules.

The in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tists in my lab­o­ra­tory are au­thors in al­most ev­ery one of my peer-re­viewed publi­ca­tions and are named in­ven­tors on three re­cent patent ap­pli­ca­tions. Most of my re­search out­puts are not mar­ketable but add to the knowl­edge in the field.

From time to time, we make dis­cov­er­ies with com­mer­cial po­ten­tial. In these in­stances, UCL’s tech­nol­ogy trans­fer of­fice cov­ers the ini­tial patent fil­ing’s cost and sub­se­quent fil­ing world­wide if the patent is granted.

It is im­por­tant that we are aware own­er­ship of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty gen­er­ated in this way al­most in­vari­ably re­mains with the host univer­sity or in­sti­tute. The bulk of any rev­enues come back to the UK, of­ten long af­ter the vis­it­ing sci­en­tist has re­turned home. So over­seas sci­en­tists make tan­gi­ble and quan­tifi­able con­tri­bu­tions to our na­tional econ­omy.

With­out them, the re­search out­puts from our lab­o­ra­to­ries would be di­min­ished, the global im­pact of our work would de­cline, and our abil­ity to de­liver a healthy re­turn to the tax­payer, who funds much of what we do, would be se­verely com­pro­mised. — © Guardian News & Media 2015

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