Syngenta, the last of the big biotechnology companies still working on genetic modification in the UK, is to transfer all of its GM operations to the US, prompting accusations that the Government has failed to defend British science against attacks from anti-GM pressure groups.
Syngenta is the largest agribusiness in the world and produced the first GM product on the UK market - modified tomato puree.
Senior academics this week described the company's decision as the final nail in the coffin for GM research in the UK, and warned that it would drive many plant scientists out of the country.
The decision represents a major blow for British science weeks before the Government is expected to announce an unprecedented rise in science spending as part of a ten-year spending plan.
Syngenta has yet to make a public announcement about its plans. But sources close to the company told The Times Higher it had decided to move the GM work carried out at its Jealott's Hill site, near London, to the Syngenta research centre in North Carolina.
Staff at Jealott's Hill were told last week that 130 jobs would be lost in the UK.
Derek Burke, former vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and a leading pro-GM campaigner, said: "I am not surprised about Syngenta. This is an inevitable consequence of the Government's inaction. Why should they stay?"
He added: "Syngenta was the last one. The signal this sends to the research community is extremely negative."
Professor Burke warned that the government's failure to stand up to anti-GM pressure groups did not bode well for the future of science in the UK. He said that other controversial areas of research, such as nanotechnology, might come up against a similar wall of opposition.
Many plant scientists have already left the UK. Experts are predicting this news may prompt a further exodus to more GM-friendly countries such as the US and Australia.
Michael Wilson, a professor of plant biology at Warwick University, said:
"Anyone who isn't about to retire will leave the country. We are all feeling, 'what the hell is the point?' There are a lot of people with their heads in the sand. They are deluding themselves about the impact this will have on British science."
Anthony Trewavas, professor of plant biochemistry at Edinburgh University, said morale in the plant-science community was at an all-time low. He explained: "We are noticing a reduction in students wanting to do molecular courses. They don't see a career in it anymore. All they hear is antagonism and anxiety."
Professor Trewavas predicted that the US would continue to dominate GM research but he said China and India were both "going great guns on it".
But Mike Gale, head of the Comparative Genetics Unit at the John Innes Centre, insisted that UK researchers could work with industry overseas on GM.
He said: "Applied research might be difficult here now, but in terms of fundamental research we are still strong."
A Syngenta spokesperson said this week that the company planned to invest £10 million in a new biology complex at Jealott's Hill, but confirmed that plant science would move to North Carolina. He said: "As a company we are still very much committed to agricultural biotechnology. Our investment in that remains completely unchanged."
A Syngenta insider said: "The trend in all of the agricultural biotechnology companies now is to focus on development. So it makes sense to put the research next to the development where the market is in the US."
But the insider said universities must not give up on fundamental plant science: "We can't just give up and let the Americans do it."
* Next week: the real story behind Britain's brain gain