UK can't afford to rest on its laureates

October 17, 2003

The three British academics who won Nobels last week gained wide public acclaim, but will their institutions and UKscience in general benefit too? asks Anna Fazackerley.

For much of last week, the media spotlight shone on three British academics - Anthony Leggett, Sir Peter Mansfield and Clive Granger - the country's newest Nobel laureates. The winners and their work gained wide public recognition, but will some of the acclaim rub off on the British universities that nurtured them?

Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, has particular cause to celebrate. Mansfield, who was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, is a professor in the university's physics department. And Granger, who won the Nobel in economic sciences, began his career at Nottingham before moving to the US.

Campbell says: "I'm delighted for Peter Mansfield - I think it was long overdue." He admits that the prizes will have a huge impact on the university as a whole. "The announcement gives a tremendous boost to our students. Our applications will double or treble now."

Peter Main, a former head of Mansfield's department at the university who now works as director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, says it is not just students at Nottingham who will feel the effects of the kudos. "It will also give a personal boost to the researchers as they'll have an air of importance," he explains. "And although no one will say it's easier to get funding if you're a Nobel laureate, I'm sure it is."

He does note, however, that Nobel prizes tend to reinforce the common public misconception that one person (usually one man) did all the groundbreaking work himself, when that is rarely true in science. "The people in the shadows of research are never acknowledged," he adds.

Benefits for the university that launched a laureate's career may be predictable, but many people believe the prizes have a much broader significance for British research.

The IoP is overjoyed because two of the three British winners - Leggett, who shared the Nobel for physics, and Mansfield - are physicists. Quite a coup for the subject, not least because it is 26 years since a British physicist became a Nobel laureate. As a colleague commented last week to Main: "Nobel prizes are like buses. You wait 26 years for one and then two come along at once."

Main says UK physics' long wait for Nobel recognition has been painful.

"The prizes do tend to come along in clusters. I suspect that's more to do with the politics of who they choose than the state of the subject," he says.

The good news is much needed. Main explains that physics, which is an expensive subject with a flagging record for attracting students, has been in trouble for some time. It has become an obvious target for vice-chancellors seeking budget cuts, he says. According to the IoP's calculations, 28 universities have dropped their physics degrees since 1994, and there are now only 51 physics degree courses remaining in the UK.

The IoP struggles to get across to schoolchildren the message that a degree in physics makes you highly employable. It is an uphill battle, Main says. "Even the Department for Education and Skills has said to us, 'Well, what can you do with a physics degree except become an academic?' It makes you want to cry," he says.

The Nobel prize will help the IoP to spread its message. That Mansfield, whom Main describes as "a dyed-in-the-wool physicist", won the prize for medicine shows how physics can cross boundaries and how it forms part of other crucial disciplines.

But Main adds that there is still work to be done in ensuring that people make this link. "None of the television presentations about Mansfield [last week] mentioned that he was a physicist," Main complains. "My wife said her impression was that he was a medical scientist."

There is also some debate about whether the UK encourages the sort of researcher who jumps across boundaries. Peter Cotgreave, the director of campaign group Save British Science, points out that Mansfield was interested in rocketry and guided missiles before he shifted to medicine.

"It would be very difficult for someone to simply switch fields like that nowadays," he comments. "You have to have the relevant track record to get the funding."

Colin Blakemore, the new chief executive of the Medical Research Council, says Mansfield's pioneering work on magnetic-resonance imaging illustrates how high-risk research can pay off. When the MRC first funded his work in the 1970s, it had no idea if the investment would prove fruitful.

This highlights a key dilemma for those who fund research. "The question is how to get the balance right between work with an immediate and obvious benefit and work that is much more risky but has the potential for a higher pay-off," Blakemore says.

Despite the risks, Britain cannot afford to fall behind in the pursuit of cutting-edge science. But it is competing against countries such as the US that are much more able - and willing - to make the necessary investments.

Elias Zerhouni, the new director of the US National Institutes of Health, has set aside $2 billion (£1.2 billion) for adventurous research to be dispensed without the usual peer review.

In sharp contrast, Blakemore is conscious that his pot of money for research is far from bottomless. Last year, the MRC was able to fund only 45 of 84 proposals at the forefront of their field internationally. He argues: "It needs some objectivity, but I'd say that when the research councils are simply not able to fund all the work rated at the highest level of excellence, there is something wrong. In a sense, the government is causing a rundown in internationally excellent science in this country."

Whether the Nobel prizes prompt a major change in the way British science operates remains to be seen. The winners may be at the forefront of our minds now, but, as Cotgreave observes, the media excitement will soon wane. "It will last a week in the major press, and then it will be gone," he says.

After that, it will be up to universities, scientists and funders to maintain the momentum. Cotgreave adds: "At the end of the day, you still have an impressive global brand name." Nottingham insists that the publicity will have lasting effects. "To be honest, we won't have to market this. Peter Mansfield has given 13 hours of interview this week," Campbell says.

But others argue that the British must become more businesslike in trying to make the most of the prizes. Cotgreave says: "You can bet the Americans will exploit theirs, now we need to do the same. In this country, we are often scared about being too upbeat."

A winner's warning: put more money into research or lose out

The government should learn a lesson from this year's Nobel prize in physiology or medicine and increase funding for blue-skies research, says one of Britain's newest laureates.

Peter Mansfield, who won the Nobel for his work on magnetic-resonance imaging, told The THES : "The Americans can see the benefit of spending on that sort of research. History proves [the benefit] again and again. MRI came out of the blue and now we've got a Nobel prize."

But the early research that went on to revolutionise medicine almost faltered for lack of funds. "There was a period from 1973 onwards when we had no funding," Mansfield says. "We had done one of the critical experiments that led to imaging, but we couldn't get funds to take it further."

Fortunately, two years later, he took the first slides based on finger images to a meeting with the Medical Research Council and they generated some excitement. Mansfield was invited to submit a research grant application.

Later, Mansfield again had to overcome hurdles to find the funds to build the first MRI scanner.

Mansfield thinks the UK does not put enough money into research, and he worries that the widening participation agenda is making things worse by spreading funding far too thinly.

He is also concerned about government plans to concentrate research funding and create teaching-only institutions. "The way in which one teaches is related to your research activity. It makes the whole thing a living topic to be taught as opposed to a sterile one," he says.

Mansfield believes academic standards have been dropping for some time, and he thinks the trend will continue as universities strive to meet the 50 per cent participation target.

"If you are pushing so many people through university, will you be able to trust the people who are engineering our bridges and our roads?" he asks.

"If levels are artificially raised to accommodate more people, what will the future be like?"

 

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