UK risks lead in stem cells, warns expert

October 14, 2005

The UK's reputation for world-class research and its ability to retain pioneers in key areas of science will collapse unless acute funding problems are resolved, a top stem-cell researcher who is quitting Britain for superior facilities in Spain said this week.

Miodrag Stojkovic, who led the Newcastle University team that created Britain's first cloned human embryo earlier this year, warned that research in the UK was already falling behind the rest of the world because of poor funding and slow, cumbersome systems for distributing the money.

Dr Stojkovic told The Times Higher that extreme frustration with the UK's research funding system and consequent uncoordinated and second-rate working conditions led to his decision to leave. He will take up a position as deputy director of regenerative medicine at the £4 million Prince Felipe Research Centre in Valencia in the new year.

He said: "When I went to Valencia for the first time three or four months ago, I was very sad to see the kind of research conditions they have there compared with those at Newcastle and in the rest of the UK.

"They have all the facilities you need in one place, so you do not need to go somewhere else such as Cambridge or Edinburgh to do part of your work.

They have planned everything in advance, so they are prepared for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow."

Dr Stojkovic complained that in sharp contrast, researchers in the UK had to wait months for decisions from research councils on bids for grants that were tiny in comparison with the huge sums being invested in other countries including South Korea, Sweden, Singapore and the US, as well as in Spain.

"In the UK, there is huge pressure on scientists to produce excellent results without there being large amounts of money invested. In the short term, you may achieve something that way, but in the long term you will definitely collapse.

"There are plenty of excellent scientists here. But all of them are very limited by the fact that they always have to apply for grants that are nothing in comparison with what is being spent elsewhere.

"It's a never-ending story. You wait for six months to find out if someone has killed your grant application, and you are always having to think one step ahead about where the money is coming from."

Responding to Dr Stojkovic's comments, research managers at Newcastle pointed out that the problems of stem-cell research funding were being addressed by a government-appointed committee.

Michael Whitacker, dean of medical science at Newcastle, said: "It is clear when you look around the world that other countries are investing large sums of money in stem-cell research. However, we are still a world leader, and the Government has recognised that something needs to be done about funding."

Newcastle has taken significant strides in the field of human embryonic stem-cell research over the past four years. It has just announced plans to expand stem-cell research, trebling the number of staff working in this area over the next five years and opening a £2 million suite of laboratories.

Dr Stojkovic said: "Newcastle has had to start from scratch. When I first came here I had just one microscope and one incubator. It has come a very long way since then. But you cannot expect the university to keep pace without the funding and the time to build up these facilities."

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