Why I ...

August 26, 2005

How do you bag a Nobel laureate? Manchester University would - presumably - like to know. The newly merged higher education behemoth has set itself a target of having five Nobel prizewinners on its staff by 2015, and three of them by December 2007. That's 28 months away, and the clock is ticking.

The university set itself the goal about a year ago, and says it is actively seeking to make an appointment. But so far, not so good. The place remains laureateless.

Perhaps one Man U could help another. As Rooney, Ronaldo and van Nistelrooy might testify, Manchester United Football Club is pretty effective at getting its man. What about drafting in Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager at Old Trafford, as an adviser?

No doubt the familiar gum-chewing purple-with-ref-rage face of Sir Alex would soon be seen in conference suites at swish hotels, wining and dining the best boffins and hammering out deals with shady middlemen.

But there is a serious point to be made. Who will Manchester go for? There are plenty of laureates out there, although many are getting on a bit. To meet the 2015 target, Manchester will ideally be looking for laureates in their 50s, or even 40s.

If Manchester wants a British laureate, how about Sir Peter Mansfield at Nottingham University? But Mansfield, who won the medicine/physiology prize two yearsago for his discoveries relating to magnetic resonance imaging, is in his early 70s and may not want a new career in Lancashire.

Clive Granger, a prizewinning economist in 2003 who also worked at Nottingham, might be worth a try. But he too is in his early 70s, thoroughly settled in the US and unlikely to move back here.

Or they could go for another 2003 laureate, the British-born physicist Sir Anthony Leggett. But they would have to lure him back from the University of Illinois, where he's been based since 1983. Similarly, the fullerene discoverer Sir Harry Kroto, like Sir Anthony formerly at Sussex University, would have to be brain-gained back from the US.

Perhaps Sir John Sulston, aged 63, an architect of the Human Genome Project, could be tempted out of retirement. Sir John, along with former Medical Research Council colleagues Sydney Brenner (a long-time geneticist at the MRC's Cambridge Laboratory of Molecular Biology and now based at the Salk Institute in California), and the American Robert Horvitz, won the medicine/physiology prize in 2002 for their work on gene sequencing.

Or Tim Hunt and Sir Paul Nurse, 2001 laureates for their work on cell division, could be poached from, respectively, Cancer Research UK and the Rockefeller University in New York.

Laureates who will prove hard to find are homegrown scientists who have done their prizewinning work at a UK university. In the past 25 years there have been nine Nobel science winners from UK research institutes - such as the MRC lab - but only four from UK universities (Sir Harry, Sir Peter, Sir Anthony and Sir James Black of King's College London).

This dearth is largely due to the brain drain of leading academics, the lack of funding for costly contemporary science and the pressure in UK universities to produce "safe" research that will bring in top ratings in the research assessment exercise but may not have the ground-breaking quality to win prizes.

One thing is clear. Manchester's headhunters are likely to be spending a lot of their time scouring the US to hit their laureate target. Anyone got Sir Alex's phone number?

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