Yearender: Britain sees scientific advancement despite uncertainties in 2017

Source: Xinhua| 2017-12-26 22:22:29|Editor: Yurou
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LONDON, Dec. 26 (Xinhua) -- Despite the uncertainties surrounding Brexit, 2017 has been yet a strong year for British science, with significant progress made in various fields, ranging from genome editing to Polar exploration.

Brexit has brought uncertainties not just to Britain's political and economic landscape, but science. Researchers from other EU countries feel insecure about their future while British scientists worry that they might not be able to access EU-funded projects.

But the concern has been relatively eased with a joint statement presented recently by British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission P resident Jean-Claude Juncker.

The document contains pledges that a final agreement will allow EU nationals now living in Britain, and their families, to apply to stay after Brexit, with minimal paperwork. The same deal is offered for British nationals living in the other 27 EU countries.

Such proposals are expected to benefit British science.

"Science has been a global enterprise for many centuries, and one reason the UK has maintained its strength as a scientific nation is its openness to ideas and talent," said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, in a speech delivered in the society's Anniversary Day last month.

"We have a long history of looking beyond our shores to bring talented people and new ideas to the UK, and there remains very strong support in the science community to continue to be open," said Ramakrishnan.

But the document might not sufficiently soothe some scientists' anxieties, Kieron Flanagan, a science and technology policy expert at the University of Manchester, was quoted as saying in a Nature article.

"Non-UK EU nationals must feel battered and bruised by the uncertainty of the process," he said. "And I'm not sure how much this will do to reassure those who might be thinking twice about coming to the UK in the near future."

Nevertheless, to give confidence to those working in academia and science-related industries, the British government is promising more funding in research and development.

May announced a plan to expand investment in research and development from 1.7 percent to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product by 2027. This could mean around 80 billion pounds (106.8 billion U.S. dollars) of additional funds for advanced technology in the next decade.

In addition to policy support, Britain's researchers have made significant advancements in different scientific areas.

In February, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) announced that its team has successfully relocated the Halley VI Research Station to its new home on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

The Halley Research Station is an internationally important platform for global earth, atmospheric and space weather observation in a climate sensitive zone, according to BAS. Built on a floating ice shelf in the Weddell Sea, Halley VI is the world's first re-locatable research facility.

In May, construction of the Square Kilometre Array Global Headquarters (SKA GHQ) was initiated at the The University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank site.

The 4,200-square-meter SKA GHQ will eventually be home to more than 135 staff from more than 13 countries, tasked with managing the construction and operations of the Square Kilometre Array telescopes, located in Southern Africa and Western Australia.

The finished telescopes will be several times more sensitive and hundreds of times faster at mapping the sky than today's best radio astronomy facilities.

A major breakthrough was also witnessed in genome editing. In September, the Francis Crick Institute announced that a team led by its researchers has used genome editing technology to reveal the role of a key gene in human embryos in the first few days of development.

This is the first time that genome editing has been used to study gene function in human embryos, which could help scientists better understand the biology of our early development, according to the Institute.

"One way to find out what a gene does in the developing embryo is to see what happens when it isn't working. Now we have demonstrated an efficient way of doing this, we hope that other scientists will use it to find out the roles of other genes," said Dr Kathy Niakan from the Francis Crick Institute, who led the research, in a statement.

Meanwhile, in its first human trial led by University College London scientists, a new drug targeting the cause of Huntington's disease was shown to be safe and well-tolerated. It successfully lowered the level of the harmful huntington protein in the nervous system.

In October, the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to three scientists for improving images made of biological molecules. The winners include Richard Henderson, a scientist from Britain.

"With the increasing emphasis on using science to solve the short-term productivity growth problem as well as tackle pressing needs, it is important to yet again make the case for basic science," said Ramakrishnan. "Basic science is important for its own sake, because it increases the store of human knowledge."