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Robin Grimes

Former FCO Chief Scientific Adviser

Part of FCDO Outreach Global Science and Innovation Network

7th August 2018 London, UK

Does sex make you smarter?

Prof. Robin Grimes, FCO Chief Scientific Adviser, Brazil 2016

As a blog title this is shamefully attention grabbing. But you are now reading.

Actually this is my last blog as Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and I want to briefly review my five and a half years with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But honestly, the title is relevant as you will see if you read on…

In early October 2012, I got an email from a recruitment agency asking if I would be interested in applying for the FCO CSA role.  After numerous interviews and Civil Service tests, I started in February 2013, for three days a week, maintaining my Imperial College position the other two days. Usefully my wife is a medical doctor over the river at the Evelina Children’s hospital so we have been able to travel to work together; this makes me the only CSA in history to take the job and spend more time with his spouse. Oddly, I had started a process of applying to FCO at the end of my undergrad’ studies in 1982 but the US National Science Foundation got in first and funded an MSc. in Materials Engineering.  It seems though that the lure of the FCO must have already been set.

Throughout my time, I have been aided by some extraordinary members of the Science and Innovation Network: the SINners. When I arrived, there were 50 science attachés in 28 countries. There are now just over 100 SIN officers in 43 countries. This reflects how technology related issues are becoming ever more pervasive in international relations. Just think about the emergence over the last five years of big data and robotics, and associated concerns for cyber security, fake news and the impact of artificial intelligence on the UK’s future prosperity and security. SIN officers make key contributions to how the UK understands the relevance of these issues, in particularly our international relations. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, this is becoming ever more important.

SIN makes an enormous financial difference to the UK scientific community, our National Labs and industry: the evidence shows that in 2017/18 SIN facilitated £239M worth of export wins, encouraged £24M of inward investment and leveraged £900M of R&D funding. It is no exaggeration to say SIN is the envy of all other countries: we are constantly being asked to help replicate our model. Looking forward, having international counterparts, will enable SIN to be even more effective.

I cannot go any further without mentioning my three wonderful, intelligent and experienced Heads of Office. I was lucky to have Chris Bradley in post when I arrived. She went on to be regional head of SIN Europe and so I continued to work with her. Next was Patrick Bragoli, with whom I made a number of most memorable overseas visits. Finally was Debbie Fern, who has saved me from making countless errors! I am so lucky to have been supported by such able people.

So, I spent my first two years trying to understand how a CSA could open new doors through science engagement, particularly through overseas visits. I also worked on issues at home, from nuclear non-proliferation and Syrian chemical weapons to the provision of science advice in emergencies. I resolved to generate activity that would be sufficiently worthy to generate one diptel* each month. As it happened, my 66 months in the job did generate exactly 66 diptels. Latterly I have focused particularly, though by no means exclusively, on six countries with which the UK’s relationship has not always been straightforward and where science diplomacy makes a standout difference. The countries have been: Argentina, Russia, South Africa, India, Turkey and Israel.

While there are many examples of my engagement with these six countries, I have space here to focus on just one:

In Argentina I was fortunate to find strong allies. The science Ministry and Minister Prof. Lino Barañao were most welcoming, so was their science funding agency CONICET. On my first visit, I was introduced to BecAr, responsible for MSc student placement, who simply asked if the UK would be willing to take 20 of their best students, fully funded. That was an easy decision, and I turned to UUKi to act as the agent. I also gave a science lecture to high school students for the British Council. By my second trip, I worked with His Excellency Ambassador Carlos Sersale, the Argentine Ambassador to the UK, who had become good friends with the British Ambassador to Argentina, Mark Kent (who I had previously worked with in Thailand). We then arranged a visit to the UK for Minister Barañao that included a dinner in his honour at the Royal Society. A key outcome was the signing of a ‘Statement of Intent’ with Jo Johnson, the then Minister for Universities and Science, following a private tour of the Science Museum. Various science inspired visits followed back and forth, encouraged and supported by members of the UK-Argentina science group that I set-up and which has become self-propelling. Throughout, GSK were pivotal in providing financial support for exchange programmes and the FCO has appointed a SIN officer in Buenos Aires. Success was inevitable because we had this wonderful congregation of the willing and able!

So science is important to Argentina, who celebrate their Nobel Prize winners. One of these was Dr. Luis Federico Leloir, after whom a whole research institute is named. I have visited the Leloir institute twice during trips to Buenos Aires. Having got to know the Director, I happened to mention in passing that my wife was a neurologist. His face lit-up. “Have I got a (scientific) paper for you” he said. The paper by Leuner, Glasper & Gould from Princeton University was published in the journal PLoS ONE and titled “Sexual Experience Promotes Adult Neurogenesis in the Hippocampus Despite an Initial Elevation in Stress Hormones”. The hippocampus is a part of the brain responsible for aspects of memory function and continues to develop throughout life. This paper presented evidence that development is promoted when learning is followed by sex. Admittedly that is in rats…

And the point of that story? Well, the CSA experience has been a litany of unexpected events resulting from countless unforeseen circumstances; from holding snakes for photo ops, to giving the UK annual statement at the IAEA General Meeting, I have supported initiatives on issues as diverse as quantum technologies and anti-microbial resistance. And sometimes, well, I just get teased. So to say it has been a broad experience does no justice – but certainly it has been an honour and a privilege to be a member of this Ministry. As I complete my transition to the role of CSA (nuclear) in MoD I look forward to yet more opportunities to learn new science facts!

So let me try to summarise. At the beginning of my time in the FCO only the USA and New Zealand had Chief Scientists in their Foreign Ministries. About two years later the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs created a CSA post, appointing Prof. Teruo Kishi-san into the role. Latterly other countries have followed suit, including the Netherlands, Oman Poland and Senegal, and. At least another four are in the pipeline. There is even a club; the Foreign Ministries Science and Technology Advisory Network (FMSTAN) that hosts meetings for delegates from over 40 countries. This is just one example of how science diplomacy is in the ascendency. The UK has been at the vanguard of this expansion and I have been lucky to be part of this exciting journey.

So back to the title. I learnt that sex can have an effect on certain aspects of brain function. Perhaps even in brains other than those of rats. But what does it mean to say ‘smarter’? Memory function and intelligence are certainly not equivalent though interrelated.

This leaves us with a final question. Is the ability to illiterate smart and sex in a blog title evidence of intelligence? Probably not but it did encourage you to read on.

* FCO heads of mission overseas use Diptels to report significant activity and events in their host country. They have a wide and senior readership, including Ministerial, and as such are concise and used sparingly.