U.K. Science Society Seeks to Fortify Joint Work with U.S. Scientists

Rush Holt and Venki Ramakrishnan exchange ideas on the post-Brexit landscape for science at AAAS Headquarters. | Juan David Romero/AAAS

The head of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest continuous scientific society, sought Thursday to reassure the U.S. scientific community that collaborations with their British counterparts will continue unimpeded despite the June Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, visited AAAS’ headquarters and met with CEO Rush Holt and Science Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Berg to stress that the relationship between the Royal Society and AAAS will not be diminished. Julia MacKenzie, AAAS’ S director of international relations, also attended the midday meeting.

“Britain has always been international in its outlook for science, for a lot of things, not just science, and a vote to leave the European Union shouldn’t be seen as Britain somehow retreating into some insular society,” said Ramakrishnan in an interview. “The scientific community has benefited for a long time from international talent.”

Indeed, Ramakrishnan said, the Royal Society is working to strengthen existing scientific alliances between U.K. and U.S. scientists. Since the post-war period, he noted, Britain is second only to the U.S. as the top international destination for scientific collaborations.

“We want to make sure that in the post-Brexit environment we somehow are able to maintain our collaborations with the Europeans, and that we strengthen and continue to collaborate with the world generally, and, in particular, we have had longstanding links with American scientists,” he said.

Ramakrishnan, who was accompanied by Tony Cheetham, the Royal Society’s vice president and treasurer, Julie Maxton, the society’s executive director, and Catharine Young, a science and innovation head at the British Embassy, later took their message to officials at the State Department and to John Holdren, the White House science advisor, during separate meetings.

Holt, who also serves as executive publisher of the Science family of journals, agreed that the 23 June Brexit vote is likely to enhance collaborations between the U.S. science community and its British counterpart. He said British scientists have long enjoyed strong alliances with U.S. scientists and those partnerships are reflected in the longstanding ties between the Royal Society and AAAS.

“Brexit may strengthen opportunities for the U.S. and AAAS collaborations with the U.K. and the U.K.’s [science] societies,” said Holt after the meeting. “They are taking this as an opportunity to strengthen existing relationships beyond Europe. That will benefit us.”

The British government’s announcement on 12 Aug that it would underwrite the value of European grants awarded to U.K. researchers until negotiations over the split from Europe are completed was welcome news to the Royal Society, which had pressed hard for that to happen.

Holt called that move “very smart,” adding, “Researchers can be assured that whatever happens with relations with the rest of Europe, the Royal Society-funded fellowships will be made good.”

Likewise, Ramakrishnan said the announcement removed “short-term uncertainty, but, of course, the long-term relationship still has to be worked out.” He added, “This is where we will be trying to talk to government people about what our wishes are, what the scientific community would like to happen in the negotiations.”

In the wake of the Brexit vote, British scientists raised vocal concerns that the government would reduce its financial support for science. Asked about the current climate, Ramakrishnan expressed optimism, saying he was copied on a letter from U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May to Sir Paul Nurse, Ramakrishnan’s Royal Society predecessor, which stated “the government is going to be very supportive about science.”

Both Ramakrishnan and Holt stressed the durability of ties between the Royal Society, which dates to 1660 and counts Sir Isaac Newton among its founders, and the younger AAAS. Holt said the partnership is among “the closest.”

Beyond AAAS, the Royal Society works with the National Academy of Sciences in producing positon statements on everything from the world’s oceans to antibiotics. It also participates in annual forums of U.K. and U.S. scientists exploring topics such as climate change and cybersecurity.

Among the many highly-noted joint efforts between AAAS and the Royal Society, was one that won plaudits as a significant accomplishment for science diplomacy. The project brought a group of British, American, Chinese scientists together with the unlikely addition of North Korean scientists. The study allowed the scientists to collect data for the first time on the status of North Korea’s Mount Paektu, a potentially violent volcano that sits on its border with China.

The scientific teams set up a line of six sophisticated seismic monitors from the summit of Mount Paektu east into the countryside, and collected data for two years beginning in August 2013. The findings, outlined in a study published in Science Advances in April, revealed that a large part of the crust below the volcano was partially molten, in a sign that it could erupt, and that an eruption could set off massive flooding, and unleash ash and sulfur dioxide with possible damaging consequences to the global climate.

“There have been only the closest collaborations with the U.S.,” Holt said. “You may know Venki himself is an American, worked in the United States until the last decade or so, so there are no limitations that I see on our collaborations.”

[Associated image: From the left, Royal Society Executive Director Julie Maxton, the Science Family Journals Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Berg, AAAS CEO and Executive Publisher of the Science Family Journals Rush Holt, and President of the Royal Society Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. | Juan David Romero/AAAS]