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UK and US sign umbrella research agreement to strengthen collaboration

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The first agreement of its kind between the countries seeks to build on research and innovation partnerships between the countries, as the UK looks to build new research relationships beyond Europe.

Universities and science minister Jo Johnson signed the agreement in Washington DC with Judith G. Garber, the US acting secretary of state for oceans and international environment and scientific affairs.

The agreement promises a commitment to collaborating on world-class science and innovation, as well as recognising the importance of open data in science. It could also develop a legal framework to allow a freer flow of people, funding and equipment between the two countries.

Universities and other organisations, such as Scientists4EU, have repeatedly warned the government that exiting the European Union will have a severely negative impact on British science, particularly due to the likely end of freedom of movement, even if the UK remains active in European projects, such as those of the European Space Agency and CERN.

The agreement could be seen as a signal of the UK looking to other major international partners, as it prepares to sever ties with the EU bloc.

“The UK is known as a nation of science and technical progress, with research and development being at the core of our Industrial Strategy,” said Johnson. “By working with our key allies, we are maintaining our position as a global leader in research for years to come.”

“Our continued collaboration with the US on science and innovation benefits both nations and this agreement will enable us to share our expertise to enhance our understanding of many important topics that have the potential to be world changing.”

The agreement will begin with a £65 million investment on key components for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) (formerly the Long Baseline Neutrino Facility), an enormous particle detector which will be based in a gold mine in South Dakota, due to open in 2024.

14 UK universities and two Science and Technology Facilities Council laboratories are already involved in DUNE. The £65 million investment will make the UK the largest foreign investor in the project.

Neutrinos - near-massless “ghost particles” which are notoriously difficult to detect - will be fired through the earth from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and then studied in DUNE. As the neutrinos travel, they switch type from one to another (neutrino oscillation). The DUNE facility is intended to study this elusive phenomenon, as well as comparing this behaviour with that of their antimatter twins (antineutrinos). In doing so, the researchers could better understand why matter, not antimatter, dominates the universe.

Other experiments run at the enormous facility could help elucidate how black holes are formed and, in searching for signs of proton decay, offer hints of a relation between the stability of matter and the “Grand Unification” of fundamental forces.

The UK-US agreement will also encourage partnerships in the arts and social sciences. The Arts and Humanities Research Council will collaborate with the Smithsonian Institution on a project based at the National Museum of American History, focused on increasing the use of digital research techniques in museums.

Government chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport, who accompanied Johnson to Washington, said: “Research and innovation are global endeavours. Agreements like the one signed today by the United Kingdom and the United States set the framework for the great discoveries of the future […] Agreements like this also send a clear signal that UK researchers are outward looking and ready to work with the best talent, wherever that may be.”

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