Four years ago American scientist Larry Hench came to work in London. Julia Hinde spoke to him about the pros and cons of life in the UK
Moving to London was one of the best things American academic Larry Hench ever did - but he doesn't expect too many of his colleagues to join him in swapping the Florida sun for the streets of
Rather, Hench, now professor of ceramic materials at London's Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, is bucking the trend. He reckons he's "probably the one in every hundred coming this way".
Last year, following science's cash windfall in the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Medical Research Council announced plans and money to attract top UK and foreign academics back to Britain. But although Professor Hench, who came to London from the University of Florida four years ago, is adamant that working in Britain has considerable benefits, he doubts such a scheme will have much success in attracting tomorrow's high fliers to the UK.
"You need to question whether that should be a goal," says Hench, who has forged his
academic career at the interface between materials science and medicine, designing spare parts - such as tiny ear bones - for humans, made from the bio-active glass which he invented. "The quality and personal attention
students at first degree level get here in the UK is very high. If that quality is properly transferred into the next steps of research, then I think there is no automatic advantage in looking abroad."
Hench had had considerable contact with UK researchers before coming to the UK. During the Star Wars defence programme he led an international collaboration designing and making tiny, accurately shaped pieces of glass using chemicals, rather than traditional heat methods. The merger of London's Imperial College with the medical schools at St Mary's and Charing Cross hospitals and the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, presented him with a unique research opportunity and environment. Imperial was looking for a professor working in the area of new materials.
"It was the merger with the hospitals that was the deciding factor," says the 60-year-old of coming to London. "Imperial offered the full spectrum for research - it's possible to work the whole way from gene analysis to clinical application. That is possible in only a few places in the world. There's also an openness at Imperial towards new and creative ideas that I have found to be unique."
With established academic and clinical contacts in London, where he had already spent a year on sabbatical, as well as family connections (his wife and co-researcher June Wilson is English), Hench jumped at the Imperial professorship. He was able to retire with a full pension from the University of Florida.
"But I could not have afforded to make the move on the salary of an Imperial College professor alone," he says. "I could not have afforded to take a bridging loan to buy a flat in London if I did not have the retirement income from
And that, says Hench, is where part of the problem of attracting academics to the UK lies. "The economics of Europe versus the US means it is very difficult to attract people," he says. "For younger people without retirement packages, there would certainly be no economic incentive for them to come."
He adds that working as a researcher in the UK also brings much higher teaching burdens and less autonomy than in the US. "When you teach a course in the US, you decide how to assess it," explains Hench, who adds that researchers who bring in contracts can drastically reduce their teaching loads.
"The amount of time you have to devote to teaching in the US is probably a fifth of that which academics have to spend here. Thus, there is very little incentive for young academics to take a post in an English university when during a year you have to spend 60 per cent of your time in first degree teaching and assessment, while in a US university, if you are a
productive young academic, you can spend as little as 20 per cent doing undergraduate
Of the British Teaching Quality Assessment and Research Assessment Exercise, he adds: "You know from peer review publications, conferences and observation who is good, medium and bad. You really don't need three metres high of documents to prove quality. The amount of time spent on these things is time not spent improving quality, doing research or being an entrepreneur."
Hench has 25 US patents to his name and four start-up companies under his belt. He first got into designing replacement parts for humans following comments from a US army surgeon during the Vietnam War, who urged scientists to devote time to helping injured soldiers rather than just to making better weapons. He has experience of the entrepreneurial as well as the academic side of science. "I have lived through the entrepreneurial phase," he says. "It's important, but it's a difficult balancing act. You have to be aware of the commercial, but you can't let it be a driver of what you are
Hench sees the space for basic research which still exists in the UK as a huge plus. "I think there is a difference between the UK and the US," he says. "Here there is a willingness to talk about long-term solutions without being too concerned for having short-term economic gain."
Hench's current research at Imperial sees the material scientist, who claims to have learned his biology on the hoof, dabbling in
In 1969, he was the designer of the first bio-glass - a matrix of glass which
contains the mineral ingredients of bone, so that when it is put in the human body, rather than being recognised as a foreign body and
rejected, it instead forms a layer of bone mineral within minutes.
Sensor molecules in the body, rather than recognising a foreign presence, instead react to the formation of bone mineral by triggering a process by which the body itself creates new bone, thus forming a living bond between the replacement bone and the body.
Thirty years on, he is on the hunt for the human genes which are turned on by this process to form new bone and new material in the body. "There will probably be a family of such genes," Hench speculates. "We are looking at what happens in the cells at a molecular level. We want to take the cells and use this knowledge to grow new constructs, new bones, new organoids.
"In the US it can be very difficult to get new ideas accepted," adds Hench. "Whereas here in London, it's fantastic. It's a very exciting environment in which to work."