No-brainer: top British scientists may flee funding famine for feasts abroad

September 9, 2010

A leading British neuroscientist tempted to leave the UK by superior investment in science overseas believes it is "inevitable" that others will follow suit if public funding for research in the UK is savaged.

Adrian Owen, who was lured from the University of Cambridge by a multimillion-dollar Canadian programme to attract the world's top researchers, said there was a real danger of a brain drain if science takes a sizeable hit in the government's Comprehensive Spending Review next month.

His warning was echoed by vice-chancellors, who said there was clear evidence that overseas countries are taking advantage of funding uncertainty in the UK to swoop for British talent.

Dr Owen, assistant director at the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, was attracted by the pull of healthy investment in Canada - he has been awarded C$10 million (£6.1 million) by its government to conduct his research at the University of Western Ontario - and the country's superior science infrastructure.

"My decision was not driven by a desire to leave here - I was very much pulled by Canada rather than pushed by the UK - but the situation where I am going is very different to the one I am leaving," he said.

"People are not going to just sit around in the UK because they like the UK. In a situation like this, where there are countries increasing their funding while not a lot is being invested in science in the UK, it is dangerous because people will move."

The scientist, who will officially take up his post in January 2011, will be joined by seven members of his Cambridge team.

Dr Owen said he had already witnessed a "really refreshing" attitude during his initial visits to Canada.

He will take up one of up to 20 Canada Excellence Research Chairs that have been created by the federal government in an overt attempt to persuade star academics from around the world to move to the country.

At least three other British academics have also been appointed to the roles.

Dr Owen, who has carried out groundbreaking research into brain activity among vegetative-state patients, said he was told during a recent visit to Canada that the chairs were created to help replenish an academic base that was badly eroded by public-sector cuts in the 1990s.

Steve Smith, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said: "It is too early to say whether there is a pattern of academics leaving the UK due to overall funding pressures here.

"However, I am getting the impression that British universities are fighting more advances than usual from countries such as Canada, the US, Australia and Singapore, which are making attractive offers."

Another vice-chancellor, who declined to be named, called for greater research concentration if the forthcoming cuts are as severe as feared to avoid a brain drain damaging Britain's scientific standing in the world.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said the consequences of the UK failing to compete with other countries would be "devastating".

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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