The decision by one of the leading stem-cell researchers to move to Britain could herald a brain drain from the United States, according to US scientists.
Roger Pedersen, a professor of reproductive genetics at the University of California, San Francisco, announced on Monday that he would move to Cambridge University in September. He said he wanted to continue his research "with public support". He was compelled to suspend privately funded on-campus research into deriving additional stem cells from human embryos in April.
Haile Debas, dean of the UCSF's school of medicine, said Professor Pedersen was "seeking an opportunity where he can do his work with less difficulty than he faces in the United States".
Congress banned public funding for embryo research in 1996, but in 1999 the Clinton administration exempted stem cells. The Bush administration suspended funding in April while it evaluated the policy.
University scientists, private companies and pro-life campaigners testified before the Senate on Wednesday on the ethics of using embryos for medical research, in what was thought to be the final hearing before a presidential edict later this month.
The current situation places institutions in countries with more liberal research rules in a strong position to poach US stem-cell staff. In January, the House of Lords agreed to allow therapeutic cloning, making the United Kingdom one of the most supportive centres of stem-cell research in the world.
"For those who want to work on human embryos, morale is pretty low," said Lawrence Goldstein, professor of cell and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego. "If years are going by and the federal government is out of the picture and data is coming in from the UK that this is a promising area, then we could see (an exodus) happen."
US stem-cell academics may also defect to industry. "There are a number of self-capitalised pharmaceutical companies and if federal funds are not available, researchers may deem the grass greener," Tony Mazzaschi, vice-president for research at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said.
"It's tragic for science when we lose a stem-cell investigator like Roger Pedersen, who was simply outstanding," said Mary Hendrix, professor of anatomy and cell biology at the University of Iowa and a witness at this week's Washington DC hearings.
The Medical Research Council arranged an accelerated grant for Professor Pedersen through its international appointments initiative. The scheme aims to attract top international researchers to the UK by offering up to £1 million in funding without the need for a detailed research proposal. One other stem-cell researcher was brought to Oxford from Harvard and the MRC said it had been approached by several others in the field.
Winners of top scientist awards announced
The first winners of a £20-million scheme to retain the United Kingdom's best scientists have been announced by the science minister, Lord Sainsbury.
Seven scientists, including one working abroad, will receive between £45,000 and £75,000 a year for five years, to be split between boosting salaries and research expenses.
Sir Robert May, president of the Royal Society, said: "These awards... send a message across the globe that Britain remains one of the best places to carry out scientific research."
The Research Merit Awards have been funded by the Wolfson Foundation and the Department of Trade and Industry, and will be administered by the Royal Society. A further 30 awards will be made this year and about 35 next year.
Award-winner Andres Rodr!guez-Pose, of the London School of Economics' department of geography and environment, said he was "elated". He said the UK system expected him to be good at teaching, administration and research simultane-ously, so he had begun to think about moving to the United States. The award meant his research conditions would be comparable to American universities, allowing him to afford a research assistant and to stop teaching for two years.
Another award will enable Alexei Kornyshev to move from Germany to Imperial College London's department of chemistry. Imperial had interviewed him, but could not afford to appoint him at an appropriate level.
Other award winners are: Stefano Brandini, Richard ffrench-Constant, David Goldstein, Paul McMillan and Harold Thimbleby.
Additional reporting by Dave Barlow