From industry to academia

A new scheme aims to help universities attract talented scientists from the private sector, explains Zoë Corbyn

November 27, 2008

For most researchers, the move from academia to the private sector is normally a one-way transition.

But the Government wants to entice industry high-flyers to move in the other direction.

A total of £5 million is up for grabs from the research councils in "skills gap awards".

The money is being made available to help universities fill research and technology-transfer posts from the private sector in a bid to boost recruitment in areas where institutions have previously struggled to find suitable people.

It is also part of an effort to address the current financial crisis and the restructuring of the pharmaceutical industry, which is likely to leave some talented industrial scientists without jobs.

"Many businesses and industries in the UK employ first-rate scientists," said Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, as he launched the scheme.

"In the current economic downturn, some highly qualified people may face uncertain futures, so we need to give them all the opportunities we can to stay working in our research base or in wider science-based roles."

The scheme is being managed by the Medical Research Council (MRC), with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council also participating.

Universities are expected to make appointments and pay salaries themselves, but the research councils are offering up to £250,000 to enable new recruits to pursue research while they apply for grants.

Tony Peatfield, acting director of corporate affairs at the MRC, said: "Although the numbers aren't big, the scheme could make a significant difference (to universities' ability to recruit scientists from industry)."

He said it was important to the success of the MRC's translation agenda that universities should recruit people who had been at the "user end" of basic research.

"They have the expertise and knowledge to know what sort of basic research would be useful for universities to do," he explained.

He said the scheme was modelled on funding that had been offered by the MRC since 1999 to assist universities in recruiting top-flight scientists from abroad, which has so far funded 30 appointments.

The money is available to universities that recruit from any part of the private sector, but appointments must be relevant to biotechnology or biomedical research and cover biology, chemistry, imaging, engineering, clinical research, informatics or statistics.

Dr Peatfield said very senior appointments would be considered, but that the scheme was aimed mainly at mid-career researchers.

The one-off allocation, for which applications must be submitted by 3 April next year, is expected to fund between ten and 15 strategic appointments over two or three years.

A more permanent academic-industry exchange programme is expected to be announced next spring. Any appointment would also need to complement and support existing research council investment. Posts funded jointly with industry would be favourably received.

Dr Peatfield said: "If companies are making people redundant, they may be willing to contribute to a university salary for a year or so as part of their package."

Rod Coombs, vice-president for innovation and economic development at the University of Manchester, welcomed the scheme and said people who come into a university with commercial experience tend to do a "very good job".

"Once they have got their feet under the table, got some grants, and got used to the routine ... the work comes naturally and they do their research in a way that continues to involve collaboration with industry. They don't need to learn how the other side works because they have come from that side."

Dr Peatfield said the council would be taking applications only from institutions, so any interested scientists currently working in industry would need to tap into the scheme through a university.

The announcement is part of a package aimed at narrowing the skills gap, which also includes more research council studentships, to be made available by the BBSRC and the Economic and Social Research Council.

It comes as the MRC released an independent study of the benefits in investing in medical research, which showed there is a time lag between research expenditure and related health benefits of about 17 years.

The study also looked at research into cardiovascular disease and mental health, showing that for every pound invested by the taxpayer or charity donor, the benefit to the UK economy is 39 pence and 37 pence respectively each year in perpetuity.

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