Mail & Guardian

Collaborat­ion gives science its competitiv­e edge

- 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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