Byline: Joshi Herrmann
LONDON is getting greedy. First we christened ourselves the capital of world finance when the City boomed in the Nineties. Then the post-Millennium years found us claiming that no world city could match our arts. Then, in the wonderful afterglow of an historic Olympic summer, we found the self-confidence to declare our city the capital of the world -- the most desirable, welcoming, diverse and successful metropolis on the planet.
Yet a new moment of triumph may be approaching without anyone really noticing.
This week science minister David Willetts hailed the first British astronaut for 20 years as "a landmark moment for Britain and our reputation as a leading science nation". And news in March that Imperial College is pushing ahead with a [pounds sterling]1 billion science park on former BBC territory in White City passed under the radar, but some say it heralds a scientific revolution in our midst.
Imperial is inviting up to 50 companies to take up residence at the ambitious Imperial West site to create the kind of centre for research, development and learning that hasn't been built in this country for many years.
It mirrors a similar plan by University College London on the other side of town in Newham, also predicted to cost in the region of [pounds sterling]1 billion.
Between them, the two universities have exciting scientists designing nanomaterials, planning a mission to Jupiter and making microchips that wirelessly feed back our body's performance to a computer. Figures from the Science Museum suggest that the "Brian Cox effect" has excited Londoners -- last year visitor numbers were up eight per cent. Geek is clearly chic.
So will London soon be able to call itself the capital of science as well? Professor Stephen Caddick, the vice-provost at UCL, thinks so. "I would argue that nowhere in the world has the mix of top universities, the NHS and an entrepreneurial community like London," he says, baptising the capital a "super-cluster" of scientific and technological innovation. The cluster he is referring to comprises two of the world's leading universities (in UCL and Imperial -- placed fourth and sixth respectively in the QS worldwide university rankings), the research opportunities offered by the NHS and the potential investment and partnership from the thousands of big companies and banks who call London home. "The proximity we have is a real differentiator," he says.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions, Imperial College's president and rector, agrees. "I would say the areas where we have strong leadership in the world are our ability to use commercial opportunities and to build those new discoveries into benefits for society, particularly in healthcare and biomedicine," he says.
That is the ethos of the White City campus, he adds: "It's not a new ethos but it's on a completely new scale -- 50 spin-off companies. In world-class science, this is one of the big ingredients that is missing." The science-business nexus is seen as the crucial ingredient that can keep London's science scene competitive when universities are facing cuts. O'Nions says the Government has "done well in maintaining fundingfor research in these relatively austere times" but admits that finding "joint venture private-sector partners" is vitally important. "There is no compromise in prostituting research to make big bucks," he insists.
He cites Imperial's Chris Toumazou, who has a stake in several spin-off companies that develop medical devices based on his research. "Science people need to know that they can get their hands on the money in London," says Boris Johnson's deputy mayor Kit Malthouse, who is in charge of the business and enterprise brief at City Hall. He calls science the capital's "number two sector" after financial services, and says that, like the City, continued success depends on "critical mass".
"The word of science knows about London's prominence, but nobody else does," he says. …