Reaching for stars

October 19, 2001

The THES examines how countries are turning brain drain into brain gain.

Awards that top up salaries are bringing talent back to the UK. Julia Hinde reports.

When Roger Pedersen, a prominent American stem-cell researcher, announced plans earlier this year to quit his United States lab and head across the Atlantic to Cambridge, claims of an academic brain drain filled the air.

The phrase had been bandied about for decades, but in the past it was talk of a drain of scientists from the United Kingdom to the US, attracted by higher salaries, better equipment and increased opportunities. Pedersen, however, was heading in the opposite direction, attracted to the UK under the Medical Research Council's international appointments initiative.

Talk of a US brain drain may be premature. Anecdotal evidence of British scientists leaving UK universities for overseas posts or industry still abounds. However, the MRC scheme, and two other similar programmes that have just begun, may, say science policy-makers, help tip the balance and persuade top academics to come to, or remain in UK universities.

In last year's science and innovation white paper, Excellence and Opportunity , the government announced a £4 million-a-year initiative to entice scientific talent - the "David Beckhams" of science, in the words of the then chief scientific adviser Lord May of Oxford - to come and work in the UK. The scheme, claimed the Department of Trade and Industry, would help deliver "scientific brain gain".

A year on, the Royal Society, which is administering the scheme on behalf of the Wolfson Foundation and the DTI, the initiative's funders, has announced the first seven winners of these research merit awards, which will pay top-up salaries considerably above university pay, as well as covering research costs.

The scheme is open to all nationalities and is not simply an attempt to attract back UK academics who may have left for labs overseas. Rather, it is an attempt to bring to the UK, "the best, regardless of nationality", says Keith Wylde, head of research support at the RS. The RS is soon expected to announce the second group of winners, including at least one high-profile American.

The MRC scheme, too, is not targeted solely at expatriate Brits. Now in its second year, it aims to make it easier for academics working overseas to move to the UK and get research programmes up and running quickly. The initiative will pay research costs for up to four years, so that an incoming academic can get on with research immediately rather than having to put in bids to the MRC on arrival. Awards have ranged from one-off £100,000 payments, to £1 million over four years.

Of the 13 awards already made, a third have been to returning Brits. "We are keen to help top Brits wanting to come back," says Peter Dukes, strategy and liaison manager for the scheme. "But we will also use it just as happily to bring other top international people. We want the best scientists in the UK."

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is also about to embark on a similar scheme, funded in collaboration with industry. The idea, explains David Clark, director of research at the EPSRC, is to get into UK universities "new star researchers, either from overseas or from outside academia", in disciplines where a lack of expertise has been identified.

Again the scheme is open to all nationalities, with the EPSRC and industry co-sponsors offering funding for five years, after which the university will be expected to pay the academic's salary. The first awards should be announced shortly.

Oz attracts its wizards home
 
Annual salaries of about £80,000 (A$225,000) are being used to attract expat Australian academics back home.

Last month, Australian prime minister John Howard announced the first recipients of federal government Federation Fellowships - the richest funded research fellowships ever offered in Australia.

Over the next five years, there will be up to 125 such awards, which, according to the Australian Research Council, "by providing an internationally competitive salary, will support and encourage Australian researchers to stay in, or return to, Australia".

The 15 awards announced so far will mean the return of six Australian academics working overseas, while eight others will stay in Australia. One of the awards also brings to Australia a researcher from Sweden.

According to the ARC, preference for the fellowships will go to Australian citizens and permanent residents, but "there is scope for up to five fellowships to be awarded in any given year to researchers who are not Australians".

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