Stemming the British Research 'Brain Drain' Will Gordon Brown's Cash Injection for Scientific Research Help to Keep British Talent Here? Chief Feature Writer Ros Dodd Reports

The Birmingham Post (England), July 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

Stemming the British Research 'Brain Drain' Will Gordon Brown's Cash Injection for Scientific Research Help to Keep British Talent Here? Chief Feature Writer Ros Dodd Reports


One of the most radical anti-cancer drugs on the market today was invented at Aston University.

Scientists spent two decades developing Temodal - without any significant cash input from the Government.

It was left to the charity Cancer Research Campaign to sponsor the pioneering work being carried out by researchers at the Birmingham university's school of health and life sciences.

Now available in the UK and Europe, the drug has been described as the most important brain cancer treatment for 20 years.

'The Government put almost no money into it and yet it's become a leading cancer drug,' the school's head, Professor David Billington, said yesterday.

His point, of course, is that university research has for many years been grossly underfunded. This has allowed America to leap ahead in terms of scientific development - often luring British experts across the Atlantic in the process.

Yesterday, the Government took a step towards stemming the so-called 'brain drain' by announcing a pounds 1 billion programme of investment in British scientific research.

Under a two-year partnership deal with science research charity the Wellcome Trust, the Government will provide pounds 325 million for investment in laboratories and equipment in 2002-3, with a further pounds 450 million the following year.

At the same time the Trust will put in pounds 225 million to support biomedical research, announced Gordon Brown.

The Chancellor, who wants to make the United Kingdom the research capital of Europe, said: 'The commitment to science must mean constant renewal and modernisation of our science base. The scale of this investment is unprecedented, ensuring world class facilities for world class science.'

But while pounds 1 billion sounds a lot, is it sufficient to meet scientists' needs when the cost of replacing one piece of worn-out equipment can be pounds 250,000?

'It's not an enormous amount when it's spread out,' agrees Prof Billington. 'To be able to compete (with countries such as America) we have to have state-of-the-art instrumentation.

'This money is very welcome and will make a difference, but whether it's enough is an interesting question.'

Yesterday's announcement follows a consultation with universities which showed that lack of capital investment in scientific research was one of their most pressing concerns.

The new initiative, to be known as the Science Research Investment Fund (SRIF), brings together three funding bodies - the Wellcome Trust, the Office of Science and Technology and the Higher Education Funding Council for England - which had previously collaborated on the pounds 750 million Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF).

Birmingham University - which ranks among the country's top ten research universities - scooped pounds 40 million worth of grants under JIF.

'One of the largest was for a new institute of biomedical science,' says spokesman Frank Albrighton. 'We haven't seen the small print of what the Government's new initiative but we imagine it will be the same sort of process.

'We want to continue to maintain our position as a leading research university and to do that we need good facilities which attract good teachers, which in turn produce good students.'

But producing good students is not enough in itself. Universities have to be able to keep and nurture them.

Poor pay, outdated facilities and equipment and a constant struggle for research cash means many brilliant scientists turn their back on academia.

'The brain drain isn't only about people going to other countries, it's about them leaving the scientific sector; people are forced to look for jobs elsewhere,' comments John Dowell, Poynting Professor of Physics at Birmingham University.

'It's true that top-ranking scientists are going abroad. Evidence for this comes from the Fellows of the Royal Society, of which I am one. …

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