The salaries of junior researchers will be the next priority for the Office of Science and Technology, following the increase in PhD stipends announced in the last comprehensive spending review.
Many members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee told Lord Sainsbury, the minister for science, that the level of financial support for PhD students was still insufficient to prevent the best candidates from quitting British universities for posts abroad or in industry.
MP Claire Curtis-Thomas said at Wednesday's meeting: "I think it's quite an abysmal amount of money we are offering PhD students. It doesn't offer an inducement to sustain research and further money must be allocated."
She worried that the flow of top students was likely to fall as more were recruited by overseas universities.
"Other countries covet the quality of our researchers and I think there will be a drain out of the UK. What is the incentive for staying?" Lord Sainsbury admitted that the falling numbers of PhD candidates in certain subjects, such as engineering, was a problem and said this was why the government had increased the stipends.
He said that over the next three years these were set to rise by 23 per cent, reaching £9,000 in 2003 while over the previous three decades the level had merely kept pace with inflation. He added that universities had also been given greater flexibility to pay more in areas where the numbers could not be attracted.
"I wouldn't want to defend this as princely earnings for people to do this kind of research and I would personally like to pay all of these people more but the question is where are our priorities? The next priority I have is junior researchers."