Dollars lure scientists Down Under

May 14, 2004

Fears for the future survival in UK universities of "problem" subjects such as chemistry were reignited this week as it emerged that a campaign to lure top researchers to Australia is robbing Cambridge of four top scientists.

Andrew Holmes, a leading polymer chemist and fellow of the Royal Society, confirmed that he would be leaving Cambridge for Melbourne University. He will be taking a large part of his research team with him, and has already been approached by a number of other UK scientists who want to follow in his footsteps.

Professor Holmes is one of four high-profile scientists abandoning Cambridge for Australia. The moves come as scientists across academia have sounded the alarm about the future of chemistry and physics in the UK following a spate of department closures in recent years.

Jeremy Sanders, head of the chemistry department at Cambridge, said:

"Professor Holmes has made a tremendous contribution to British science, not just at Cambridge and not just in chemistry."

Professor Holmes, an Australian who has worked at Cambridge for 32 years, was tempted back to his home country with one of 24 new A$230,000-a-year (about £90,000) "federation fellowships", designed to boost Australia's "brain gain".

This funding is being matched by Melbourne and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. In addition, the Victoria State government is putting A$500,000 into his research over five years.

He told The Times Higher : "There is fantastically high-quality science going on in Melbourne. And in Australia generally there is great excitement about investing in science. This is a momentum one shouldn't miss."

Professor Holmes added: "I'd flirted with positions in the US, but the only place I would seriously consider going to was Australia."

Professor Holmes made headlines in 1990 as co-inventor of the world's first light-emitting polymers. He is a founder of successful spin-off company Cambridge Display Technology, which is developing commercial applications for technology such as super-thin video and computer screens.

Three other Cambridge scientists have received federation fellowships from Australia, which has made A$10 million available to lure Australian scientists back from elsewhere as well as poaching new talent from overseas.

Martin Johnson, professor of reproductive sciences at Cambridge, will go to Sydney University. Mark Tester, a leading plant scientist, has already gone to Adelaide University and Anton Middelberg has left Cambridge's chemical engineering department for Queensland University.

Dr Middelberg said that the UK might be overlooking Australia as a competitor: "The UK has a justified arrogance about the quality of its scientific research. Australia is certainly small, but in certain areas I think we can compete and potentially lead."

Dr Middelberg's field, chemical engineering, has been identified by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as a potentially threatened discipline in the UK.

Sir Harry Kroto, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "The country needs to ask itself why chemistry is important. The fundamental problem with our universities is that they are not being funded on the basis of the value of subjects to the country, but on the basis of market forces."

Up to now, the Higher Education Funding Council for England had maintained that it did not have the authority to stop universities closing departments that were not profitable.

But Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at Hefce, said that for the first time Hefce was taking part in "significant discussions" with the Department for Education and Skills and the Office of Science and Technology about a possible national plan to protect "problem" subjects such as chemistry, physics, engineering and modern languages.

He said: "There is obviously an issue about departments closing and the scale of it varies from subject to subject." But he added: "Does this mean a crisis for the subject? Maybe, but maybe not. More analysis needs to be done."

The funding council is working on pilot schemes to stimulate demand for chemistry at a school level.

Other options being discussed include encouraging universities to collaborate and share facilities to keep their costs down.

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