Katharine Sanderson visits the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office to find out if the world of a science attaché is as glamorous as it sounds


It’s not exactly James Bond, but UK science attach?s have accepted a mission to promote UK science and innovation around the world.

Fiona Clouder Richards heads the science and innovation unit at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). From her office in London she helped to set up a network of UK science attach?s, which she now oversees and coordinates. Each country in the network has at least one attach?, either from the UK or locally appointed - a decision that is based on the perceived needs of that country. This network aims to capitalise on worldwide scientific connections, improving UK science by building partnerships, as well as promoting UK industry abroad, and influencing science policy in other countries.

The UK government’s 2000 and 2002 spending reviews highlighted the need to capitalise on the wealth of scientific expertise available both in the UK and abroad. After the reviews, the FCO was given funding to create a science and innovation unit and implement a science and technology network of attach?s in 23 countries.

The UK has a great presence in the international science community. The network and its activities have added to that. As an example, Clouder Richards cites the speeches given worldwide by the UK chief scientific adviser, David King, on climate change. She adds that those events, backed up by scientific workshops organised by the attach?s ’have really made people sit up and take notice’.

Therapeutic cloning stirs up controversy wherever it is mentioned, and is something the UK has a definite and strong position on. The UK government supports carefully regulated therapeutic cloning and a grant has been awarded to researchers in Newcastle to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos (this does not amount to support for reproductive cloning, which is banned). Clouder Richards thinks that by promoting this position some countries now have better understanding of those issues. ’We believe that we have influenced some international thinking in this area by the fact that we’re presenting the scientific evidence,’ she argues.

The network has four broad remits to bring about this international influence. Each attach? uses his or her judgement to implement them in the most appropriate way in their host country.

The first priority is science policy work: an exchange of information about science policy that is in the UK’s and the host country’s interests. The second is to make collaboration work by bringing scientists together to form practical working relationships. The third is all about money. Science for wealth creation. This is at the crux of many of the UK government’s strategies. Clouder Richards believes that UK science is strong enough to attract hi-tech businesses and create inward investment to the UK from overseas.

The fourth priority is the science of public diplomacy. This means using science as a vehicle to boost the UK’s image overseas. Clouder Richards wants to help rid the UK of its ’Beefeaters and London buses culture’, and is keen to let the world science community know that the UK’s strong science foundation can be, and is being, transformed into innovations and business opportunities.

Broad selection criteria are used for potential host countries. The first consideration is the quality of the host nation’s science. Second, and in line with the objectives of the network, is the possibility for the UK to make an economic gain. Reputation is everything and a country’s international scientific standing is also taken into account. Finally, there has to be a window of opportunity and a way into the potential host country.

When asked what countries are missing from the current list of placements, Clouder Richards insists that she’s ’not going for global domination’, but adds that the next two countries on her attach? posting list are Finland and Spain, if the funds materialise. If not, she’ll have to be content with what she calls ’optimising’ the network she has.

Clouder Richard’s network works in partnership with other bodies such as the British Council, the research councils, the Royal Society and other learned societies. It has close links with organisations like the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Office of Science and Technology.

Across London at the Canadian High Commission Caroline Martin is manager of the science and technology programme. She is a UK citizen with a PhD in chemistry from Edinburgh university. Martin has been working at the Canadian embassy for six years and is well placed to notice differences between the UK and other countries’ international science activities.

Canada has been watching the growth of the UK’s science and technology network. Canada has just nine specific science and technology postings worldwide and Martin was the first locally appointed officer. The majority are diplomats posted overseas and they do not necessarily have a science background. Clouder Richard’s Canadian counterpart recently visited the UK to look at how the UK’s network is growing and how it prioritises its work.

Martin concedes that her role as Canada’s ’eyes and ears’ in the UK may be easier than the UK attach?s role in Canada. ’To get Canada noticed in Britain was harder than to get Britain noticed in Canada,’ she says. Martin believes the UK influences Canadian science policy to some extent: ’It’s the nature of the country really, Canada looks quite closely to the UK.’

One thing that Canada is looking closely at is the relationship between trade and technology. ’Canada is recognising now that the future isn’t in trading widgets backwards and forwards,’ says Martin. ’It’s the trading of knowledge.’

After the US, the UK is Canada’s closest scientific collaborator. Both countries are helping to develop scientific research in Africa. Canadian, UK and African scientists will be brought together with other bodies, like UNESCO, the World Bank and the EU, to look at how African countries will in future have the capability to conduct scientific research and so manage to keep hold of their best academic personnel. There is little commercial gain for either the UK or Canada from this project, but it shows that both countries take their responsibilities in the world scenario seriously.

Martin has a real enthusiasm for her job, explaining that ’in any "normal" job you’d never get to talk about and be at the forefront of the cloning, nanoethics or GM debate’. This, and the chance to influence and interact with top scientists is an obvious attraction to what does sound like a glamorous job.

Clouder Richards, who is in charge of recruiting for the UK’s network explains that it takes a special something to become a science attach?. As she reels off her wish list for the ideal candidate, it is hard to believe that such people exist.

Scientific credibility is an important attribute in an attach?. ’I’m not necessarily expecting them to have a PhD in theoretical physics. What I need are people who can have credibility with senior figures in this country and in their host country,’ says Clouder Richards. The list continues: ’and we need people who can switch from space to stem cells in the course of an afternoon. We also want people who have experience of business, and technology transfer and innovation.’

If you think that you might have all these attributes, don’t pick up the phone just yet. There’s more. ’It’s not just about the scientific knowledge, it’s understanding how that scientific knowledge can translate into new products, new jobs, new services and what sort of mechanisms exist to make that happen. Also, ideally we’re looking for people who’ve got an insight into their host country and obviously in some countries there’s also a language requirement. They’re pretty special people.’

One of these special people, Philippa Rogers, is the attach? in Tokyo, Japan. Before joining the foreign office, Rogers, with a degree in agricultural sciences from Reading University, worked for UK research councils SERC (now EPSRC) and BBSRC. She also spent nine months in the US, on loan to the National Science Foundation.

Rogers has facilitated chemistry-related projects during her time in Japan. She says: ’The main purpose of the missions is to benchmark UK expertise against another country and identify potential areas for collaboration.’ In a country whose economic success is firmly grounded in technological advances, she says that a challenge in Japan is to ’tackle the lack of awareness of the UK as an innovative country’. This has been helped by the ’Innovation UK’ campaign, run by Rogers, with lectures, exhibitions and competitions. Signs are good, and Rogers’ post-campaign research revealed that Innovation UK had positively influenced perceptions of the UK as an innovative country.

Other missions with Japan have highlighted areas where, according to Rogers, Japan is ahead of the UK. Specifically, in bioprocessing the UK could benefit from collaboration with Japanese companies she says and, thanks to the specialised bioprocessing and manufacturing mission, these collaborations are slowly emerging.

Tim Jessel, of the Specialised Organic Chemicals Sector Association, part of the Chemical Industries Association, has collaborated with the FCO’s science attach? network on missions in Japan. He has also been frustrated by Japan’s perception of the UK, saying that ’Japan is a difficult nut to crack’. Until recently, Japanese academics were reluctant to consider business collaborations with the UK, but now they do. He attributes this success to the work of the mission, and therefore to the science network.

Jessel was taken to Japan by his involvement with the DTI’s global watch mission to see how organisations in Japan managed emerging technologies. The mission was ultimately about relationship building. Science attach? Rogers and her team provided invaluable support in making the mission a success, by creating gravitas behind the mission. Jessel says ’we would not have got to talk to important Japanese contacts without the UK science officers’ help.’

Academics are also using the network to build relationships abroad. Nick Quirke, from Imperial College London, has been helped by UK attach?s posted in the US. Quirke runs a research masters (MRes) degree in nanomaterials. He approached the FCO to see if they could help the MRes students attend a nanotech conference in the US each year and visit industrial and academic contacts.

The course is still in its infancy. Only San Francisco and Boston have been visited so far. The UK attach?s in the US arrange the programme of events for the students and Quirke is full of praise: ’In Boston, they put together a stunning programme of visits,’ says Quirke, pleased that his students have had exposure to the chemicals industry as well as other academic institutions. Although a little early yet to see whether the UK can benefit from programmes like this, Quirke believes that his students benefit enormously by ’learning what’s happening at the cutting edge of nanoscience’, they also make useful contacts, which could lead to future employment with the US companies visited.

Approaching the network from another angle is Dutch businessman Cees van Diepen, director of spectrometer supplier Anadis Instruments. The science network is useful to van Diepen because it puts him in touch with the right people to help him trade internationally. He thinks that by ’knowing the people you can make a perfect fit’ and attributes this knowledge to the UK’s science network.

Back in London, Clouder Richards is proud of what has been achieved so far. ’But we recognise that this has to be two way. It’s all about building partnerships. In broader foreign policy terms, science is another language of diplomacy. It’s a way of communicating that can often cut across political and geographical boundaries. Science after all is a global endeavour.’

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