V-cs honour UK's eureka moments

July 7, 2006

What do test-tube babies, fibre optics, holograms, magnetically levitated trains, interstellar pulsars, the helical strands of DNA and the Gaia hypothesis have in common?

They were all discovered or developed by academics in UK universities in the past 50 years.

Eureka UK , a booklet published this week by the vice-chancellors' umbrella body, Universities UK, details 100 major discoveries, developments and inventions by UK academics that have transformed the world. It is being billed as a celebration of the UK's impressive record in basic research.

But the booklet also prompted warnings that the current generation of academics may find their creativity and ingenuity stifled by lack of research funding.

The UK lags behind other countries in the amount allocated for research, and lecturers are increasingly unable to devote as much time they have done previously to pursue their ideas.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: " Eureka UK is launched at a key time - we are approaching a comprehensive spending review, and discussions continue over the future shape of research assessment and funding.

"We want to see the UK catching up with other major industrialised nations in terms of spending."

The UK spent 1.9 per cent of its gross domestic product on research and development in 2002 compared with 2.82 per cent in the US and 3.09 per cent in Japan.

Responding to the report, Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "The worry now is that DNA, for example, would not have been discovered because Crick and Watson would have been moved on for failing to come up with the goods within the timescales demanded by the RAE.

"Our academics must be given the necessary time and resources if the UK is to continue to be at the forefront of innovation."

A number of recurring patterns emerge from the Eureka UK list. Often the academics were working across disciplinary boundaries and succeeded against the odds, working in unfavoured subjects with little government support.

ItJalso demonstrates howJdifficult it is to predict the future applications of research.

The hunt for stellar black holesJled toJnew medical scans for cancer victims, for example, while an observation by a psychiatristJled to the first full understanding of what makes schools effective.

The list also highlights the fact that the vast majority of UK discoveries went on to be commercially developed overseas.

In his introduction to the report, Drummond Bone, president of UUK, writes:

"It is a dilemma that such talent is not matched by a similar adventurous spirit among company boardrooms in the UK, allowing entrepreneurs overseas to reap the rewards (worth hundreds of billions of dollars each year) produced by the country's rich harvest of discovery."

UUK will be distributing the publication to secondary schools across the country at the beginning of the next school year.

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