No Brain, No Gain

Top academic scientists could soon be enticed to stay in Britain with salaries of up to £100,000. The scheme is part of a White Paper that aims to boost British science. Announced last Wednesday by Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the £4 million cash injection should help keep--or lure back--up to 50 of Britain's brightest researchers. The new salary scheme was the latest in an unusual streak of good news for British scientists in recent weeks, kicking off with Chancellor Gordon Brown's announcement of a £1 billion infrastructure fund at the beginning of July.

In aiming to both attract high flyers to the UK, and hang on to those already here, the ambitious plan is to reverse the brain drain and turn it into a brain gain. Half the annual £4 million bounty will come from the Department of Trade and Industry, and half from a charity, the Wolfson Foundation. Details of how the money will be allocated are still to be decided, but the plan is that recipients will be able to use it flexibly, having the option to hire an additional research assistant or buy equipment if they don't want to use all of it for a salary hike. Immunologist Doug Fearon was lured to the UK from the United States 7 years ago by the Wellcome Trust. Because the Trust pays generous salaries by UK standards, money wasn't an issue for him, but "it certainly is a problem when we've thought about trying to recruit people from the States." His hopes of bringing a further immunologist to his department at the University of Cambridge have foundered on the salary question. Fearon hopes that the fund isn't spent only on well-established scientists. "I think they should be targeting high flyers at any stage of their career development," he says.

What Else the White Paper Says

  • On Contract Research Staff: "We are concerned about career development prospects for young people starting out and so we are encouraging the university employers ... to develop ... recognition and reward schemes for the development of researchers ... better provision and co-ordination of career guidance and staff development resources."

  • On Women: Research is under way to find out how many qualified women have left careers in science, to identify barriers to their return, and evaluate ways of overcoming them. The results, and action, are promised in 2001.

  • On Enthusing the Next Generation: 2001-02 will be Science Year, with the aim of "raising the profile of science and technology in schools and with teachers and parents." A Science Ambassadors programme will link top science students with their old schools to act as mentors.

  • On Priority Research Areas: Research fields that the government regards as key are to get an additional funding boost of £250 million. These are genomics, e-science and informatics, nanotechnology, quantum computing, and bioengineering.

  • On Enterprise: In addition to funding for teaching and research, universities are to have access to a third funding stream with the establishment of a Higher Education Innovation Fund to encourage them to reach out to business and commercialise their research.

  • On Entrepreneurship: "We need more people who combine strong technical skills with ability as managers and entrepreneurs." An extra £15 million will be put into Science Enterprise Centres "to teach science, engineering, and technology graduates business and entrepreneurial skills."

  • On Research Institutes: A series of measures are to be introduced to encourage Public Sector Research Establishments to manage their intellectual property better, including allowing scientists in the Civil Service "to benefit from helping to exploit their work commercially."

The fund will be administered by the Royal Society and is designed to build on the success of a current Royal Society programme which boosts the salaries of just 15 professors. But, although he welcomed the new fund, Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science, sounded a note of caution. Fifty researchers is "less than half a person per university," he points out. "The real problem is that nobody's paid enough. If you want to keep the best it's not just the top professors you want." With the announcement earlier in the month that stipends for Ph.D. students are to rise to £9000 by 2003, the Government hopes to halt the decline in the number of students embarking on scientific careers. Postdocs and junior lecturers have less to celebrate, however. "We need an examination of the whole system and level of university lecturer's pay," says David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

Also highlighted in the White Paper are other boosts to science funding including the £1 billion infrastructure package and a tripling of the money available to universities to support collaborations with private industry. For Cotgreave, the most pleasing aspect of the paper is "the fact that there is an explicit acknowledgement that all the other policies depend on the science base and the people who work in it," adding that in the 7 years since the last science White Paper there has been a lot of complacency on the part of policy-makers. "The quality of the science base is something which has to be actively pursued," says Cotgreave.

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