Not enough to stop the brain drain

July 28, 2000

Steve Farrar and Giselle Weiss round up the responses to thegovernment's white paper on science and innovation, Excellence and Opportunity, while below is a summary of the paper's main points

The creation of an elite of high-paid academics does not go far enough to reverse the brain drain, according to critics of the government's white paper on science and innovation.

The Pounds 4 million-a-year fellowship scheme is a prominent element of the new national science and innovation strategy launched on Wednesday. It will use six-figure salaries to try to tempt back top scientists who have left the UK for more lucrative posts abroad, while persuading others not to leave or to come here.

The belief is that capturing the best talent - the "David Beckhams" of science, in the words of the government's chief scientific adviser Sir Robert May - will ensure the most important research is carried out in the UK and will in turn attract some of the most promising young brains, leading to the emergence of cutting-edge spin-off companies.

Trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers said: "We want to get the best in the world to come to the UK because we intend to be the best in science."

The measure was welcomed by scientists as an acknowledgement of the problem, but many felt it was not sufficient to address it.

Peter Cotgreave, secretary of the pressure group Save British Science, said: "This is just a gesture, a drop in the ocean. But it is recognition that something has to be done about salaries."

Dr Cotgreave said the Department of Trade and Industry, responsible for the white paper Excellence and Opportunity, clearly recognised what was at stake with the brain drain. But raising academic wages for everyone else was the responsibility of the Department for Education and Employment, which he said completely "lacked understanding".

Nevertheless, he thought it might herald a trend towards improved wages in the sector. "Hopefully, it is the thin end of the wedge and once this small number of people start being paid properly, other parts of the science base will have to follow suit," he said.

The scheme, part of the white paper's thrust to enhance the UK's science base, will be jointly funded by the government and the Wolfson Trust, each providing Pounds 2 million annually towards the fund.

The Royal Society, with input from the research councils, will administer the payments and select up to 50 academics who will be offered a fellowship on top of their academic salary.

Details of how the scheme will work are still to be decided, but it is likely that the beneficiaries will be supported by the fund for at least four years. After this, it is possible that the academics' universities will be asked to pick up the cost.

Peter Collins, director of science policy at the Royal Society, said the fund would channel money to top innovators so the UK could compete for talent in a global market.

"Science is an elite activity. There are a relatively small number of people in science who create the new fields and open things up - their impact is quite disproportionate to their number," he said.

Dr Collins said the Royal Society, which already supports a number of research fellowships for high-flying scientists, had long argued that academic salaries were too low, but he did not believe it was a case of either or.

"We want to make sure there are enough of these people working in the UK and that they have the right conditions in which to flourish," he said.

Sir Brian Follett, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, welcomed the move, but warned there may be knock-on effects.

If a small number of scientists were paid greater sums of money, other professors might also ask for higher salaries, he said.

David Melhuish, parliamentary and public affairs officer of the Association of University Teachers, said the move meant the government acknowledged there was a problem with salaries, but he felt the fund was largely "symbolic".

"Where does this leave the bulk of the scientific research community? Does it solve the problem of people leaving at levels below the few dozen this fund will address?" he asked. The main problem is that basic pay and conditions for the majority of researchers were not good enough, he said.

The white paper also suggests other ways to attract and retain scientists and to improve the research infrastructure.

Much of this has already been outlined in the recent announcements of the Pounds 1 billion Science Research Investment Fund with the Wellcome Trust, and the Pounds 500 million settlement for science in last week's spending review.

It will also prompt an investigation into how many qualified women leave careers in science, which factors deter their return and how these can be overcome.

Rules restricting overseas students will be changed to persuade more to stay after gaining their qualifications in UK universities.

But the main thrust of the white paper is to address how best to assist with the transfer of research from the UK's universities into commercial products and services - in effect directing how the economy might benefit more from the government's investment in scientific research.

"The potential of a scientific breakthrough, such as the sequencing of the human genome, will be realised only if it feeds innovation," it states.

It also claims that creating these products and services will fuel public support for investment in basic science.

Lord Sainsbury said that in the past few years, UK universities had become increasingly adept at attracting research income from industry, raising funds from licensing income and creating spin-off companies. Many of the white paper measures aim to further improve the situation.

It sets out a series of initiatives, most of which are already running, that seek to address this. Most of the money for this effort - some Pounds 238 million - has been previously announced in the comprehensive spending review or taken from existing budgets.

Academics are to be helped to turn their ideas into commercial realities, to collaborate more with existing businesses and to help form joint ventures to tackle strategic areas of innovation.

There is also more money to teach scientists business skills. Lord Sainsbury said: "Too many scientists are still hampered by a lack of entrepreneurial skills."

Baroness Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, welcomed the package, but said: "It is important to remember that the research that underpins our role in innovation is wide-ranging, and not restricted to scientific research."

Innovation within government and research council laboratories will be encouraged, with intellectual property rights to be kept by the appropriate research bodies rather than the government department. This is seen as vital to harnessing the potential of laboratories that has been neglected.

Lord Sainsbury said: "We need to make certain that the people doing the research and their institutions will hold the intellectual property rights and not the people who provided the funds."

The government will also work with the CVCP and the Association for University Research and Industry Links to define a framework for managing intellectual property in universities.

Many scientists were disappointed at the level of coordination between the research activities of government departments beyond the DTI. "That's the part that's missing. I think it's important that the civil departments' spend is linked with the rest of UK science and that it does not continue to decline," Dr Collins said.

Dr Cotgreave said the stronger guidelines on how scientific advice should be used in drawing up government policy did not go far enough. The Office of Science and Technology should be "beefed up" so it can wield far greater influence over science policy in other departments.

Sir Robert May said the research budgets of the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions would at least remain constant over the next three years.

To help restore public confidence in science, the way the government gets its scientific advice will be made more open and new strategic bodies will be established to help facilitate dialogue, such as the two biotechnology commissions.

The white paper says: "When the applications of science are properly regulated and address clear human needs, they win support."

An opportunity to further public understanding had been missed, according to Ian Gibson, chairman of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. He wanted to see more concrete examples of money being focused on specific issues.

"It seems the excitement of science and the knowledge it gives is not just economic, but it means understanding problems that people are concerned about, such as the safety of their food," he said. But the government's approach was welcomed by Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London and former chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.

Professor Wolpert, who has attacked tokenistic attempts to prompt dialogue between scientists and the public, said: "Access is crucial and openness is all."

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