There's no question that the UK fosters world-class science. The government's 2004 10-year Science and Innovation Investment Framework set out a long-term vision for science and innovation, together with the ambition that public and private investment in R&D should reach 2.5 percent of GDP by 2014. Investment in infrastructure and funding for Ph.D.s is yielding results, although beyond Ph.D. level, obtaining funding and carving out a career still require determination.
Staying at the Top
Almost one in five of the world's leading 100 medicines was developed in the UK, which has the largest biotechnology sector in Europe. Major pharmaceutical companies continue to invest in infrastructure and to develop links with the academic and biotech communities, making the UK an attractive location for biomedical researchers to test their mettle.
Regional bioscience initiatives abound. In Scotland, for example, six universities will invest £77.4 million pooling their research excellence in the new Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance (SULSA). Eighteen new research posts and 24 support posts will be created at the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews, and Strathclyde.
Retaining Talent, Seeding Discovery
Cian Lynch is beginning postdoctoral research at the P53 Cancer Research Laboratory at the University of York, and has certainly embraced the frontier spirit in UK biomedical research. "It feels as though this is the Wild West and there's a massive land grab of new ideas." Lynch hails from Ireland, where he studied biochemistry at University College Cork. "Everyone was advising me to go to the UK," he says. There were fewer opportunities in Ireland at the time, and he started out in Cambridge, UK, as a research assistant but was soon offered a Ph.D. opportunity at York.
Toward the end of his Ph.D., Lynch decided that industry was not for him. "I started looking at America: that's where people sometimes earn their stripes before they come back here." Although he was tempted by a project in California, Lynch accepted an offer to stay in his lab at York, an indication that UK projects increasingly rival the allure of US opportunities.
In addition to government and industry funding, charities contribute significantly to UK research. The Wellcome Trust supports basic human and animal health research at a level of around £500 million each year.
Seeding drug discovery is a new Wellcome Trust funding stream for early stage drug discovery, where it can be hard to attract funding from industry and government agencies. "We're very excited about this £91million initiative," says the Wellcome Trust's Director of Technology Transfer Ted Bianco. The initiative covers unmet medical needs such as malaria and tuberculosis as well as orphan drugs and ideas that need a strong proof of concept.
Around 3,300 researchers are supported by Medical Research Council (MRC)–funded programmes. In fiscal year 2005-2006 more than £50 million was spent training researchers in universities and hospitals, through 350 fellowships, 30 New Investigator Awards, and around 420 postdoctoral studentships. Although funded by government, the MRC is independent in its choice of which research to support.
Clusters of high tech industry can be found in the UK's university science parks. Finland's Nokia has just unveiled plans to spend £40 million on a nanotechnology research center in Cambridge, a "nerve center" from which the next generation of mobile phone technology, including wearable electronics, will emerge. Mark Welland, who heads Cambridge University's Nanoscience Centre, says Nokia is hiring Ph.D. and postdoctoral staff immediately, and is doubling the number of university-based Nokia projects. "Nokia does get involved in real collaborations," he says. "They can see opportunities amongst the other companies already active here, as well as the potential for spin-out companies to work with in future."
One UK infrastructure investment eagerly anticipated by the research community is the Diamond synchrotron light source, a new £260 million facility which opened its doors in February. Funded by the government and the Wellcome Trust, Diamond is the largest scientific facility built in the UK for 30 years. "Our future prosperity rests more than ever before on the hard work and genius of our scientists and how we harness their research to deliver improvements in all our lives," Prime Minister Tony Blair said when touring the facility last November. "This is exactly what Diamond Light Source will help us achieve in many fields, from developing new drugs to tackling climate change."
Although nanoscience that includes a bio element is extremely popular, academic career prospects in hard physics or nanoelectronics are more limited. Physics departments, in particular, are heavily dependent on public funds to support their research, according to Tajinder Panesor, manager of science policy at the Institute of Physics (IOP).
An IOP survey showed that less than 5 percent of physics departments' research income came from EU sources. Applying for European funding has involved a lot of red tape, a situation that should improve under the new European Seventh Framework Programme (FP7)—the world's biggest single, publicly funded research effort and the main funding mechanism behind collaborative research and technological development in the EU.
"Hopefully more physicists will apply for funds under the FP7 themes," says Panesor. Sean McWhinnie, science policy manager at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), says FP7 is more specifically oriented toward chemistry, including nanotechnology, materials science, and energy, than the previous program, FP6. "I'm not going to deny that being bio oriented helps these days—but in FP7 there are more opportunities if you're prepared to look."
McWhinnie adds that the level of support for university Ph.D. positions, as envisioned in Ireland, is not mirrored in the UK. "Since [Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher, technical staff have been ripped away." McWhinnie believes that it is still relatively easy to get funding for a Ph.D. in chemistry, which has the largest Ph.D. output of any UK subject
The Department of Trade and Industry, which handles the public science budget, recently redirected £68 million from research council (state funding agency) budgets to nuclear power company British Energy and car firm, MG Rover, to the dismay of the research community.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), for example, had to cut £29 million from its funding programs. "Decisions have inevitably impacted on the seed corn of the future: innovative research and young people at the start of their research careers," said EPSRC's Interim Chief Executive Randal Richards. The EPSRC decided to protect research studentships at the expense of research grants, and has thus been forced to reduce award grants by £14 million for 2007–2008
On a more bracing note, UK Chancellor Gordon Brown reaffirmed long-term support for UK science with a budget announcement that public science spending would rise to £6.3 billion by 2010 from today's figure of £5 billion.
Postdoctoral research assistant positions generally involve the uncertainty of short-term contracts, a career phase that can last for up to 10 years before scientists obtain a permanent academic position.
In the UK junior faculty positions (lectureships) are highly sought after and only achieved by a minority. "There are far more postdocs than lecturing posts available," says McWhinnie of the RSC. "A postdoc may be seen as a way of widening your experience or an opportunity to travel. But it isn't a ticket to a lectureship." The government's Academic Fellowships programme gives researchers a leg up with up to one thousand funded university positions worth £25,000 annually for five years. The fellowships offer a more attractive and stable path into academia, with the added bonus of a permanent academic position after the five years is up. Universities or other sources, such as a Research Council grant or a fellowship awarded by another sponsor, supplement the funding.
Fellowships are also available through the new Science and Technology Facilities Council, launched in April and having a budget of ~£500 million. With a physical science remit, it was formed from the merger of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). "We have a huge opportunity to develop a really coherent strategy for 'big science,' to increase our influence in international organizations and make a step change in the exploitation of the resulting technology," said professor Keith Mason, the council's new chief executive officer.
Tourists have always looked to Ireland for its warm welcome and beautiful scenery. Today Ireland is also greeting an influx of scientists and major multinational companies, keen to take part in one of Europe's biggest economic success stories.
Ireland initiated the largest investment in scientific research and engineering in its history in 2000 by founding Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), a major step toward joining the knowledge-based economy set out in the Lisbon Agenda.
As part of its National R&D action plan, Ireland aims to invest 2.5 percent of GNP on R&D by 2010, with two-thirds contributed by industry. Recruiting the best research talent from around the world remains a challenge, although Ireland's profile as a research location has been noted by major investors such as Wyeth, Bell Laboratories, and IBM, all of which have established research facilities there.
Gary Crawley heads SFI's frontiers engineering and science directorate, and says that the strategy to lure information and communications technology (ICT) and biopharmaceutical companies to Ireland has paid off. "Now we're encouraging those same international companies to engage in research in Ireland. A number of those, such as IBM and Intel, are contributing to large center grants run by SFI." Collaborations typically include an industry cash contribution of 20 percent, and providing scientists to work with university-based participants.
Professor Desmond Fitzgerald, vice president for research at University College Dublin (UCD), cites Intel as a prime example. "Intel has just announced a major R&D program, part of which is with the universities," Fitzgerald says.
Ireland's inward investment body, the Industrial Development Agency (IDA), supported 54 R&D investment projects in 2006 involving a total of almost €470 million. According to the IDA, employment in IDA-supported companies increased by 3,795 in 2006, bringing the total employment to 135,487.
IBM was one of the first multinational companies to invest in Ireland 50 years ago. The company's latest investment is an expansion of its IBM Tivoli software development labs in Cork and Galway, where it will create up to 130 new positions over three years. Meanwhile, indigenous Irish ICT company Silicon and Software Systems is to create 20 new R&D roles in Dublin and Cork.
GlaxoSmithKline employs over 1,600 people at four sites in Ireland, and has now announced a five-year investment of €250 million in a production site expansion at Currabinny, County Cork, for its breast cancer treatment Tykerb. The move will create up to 150 high level jobs.
California biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences has recently announced that it will invest €60 million in a new pharmaceutical plant at Grange Castle Business Park near Dublin. The company has outgrown its existing Irish facility at Sandyford. Gilead will join Wyeth, the fastest growing biotechnology company in Europe, which has located one of the world's largest integrated biotech production facilities at Grange Castle. The investment had a price tag of almost $2 billion and made Wyeth Ireland's largest pharmaceutical employer.
Tips for Success
Denise Best, careers adviser for postgraduate research students at Oxford University Careers Service, says that although there's a feeling that doing a postdoc in another country helps your career, nothing beats getting a few decent publications under your belt and working in a research group with a good reputation. "Actually learning something about project management might help you become more efficient in your research and give you more time to spend on getting published." She also recommends workshops on writing to improve your chances with grants and publications. Oxford's Skills Portal website (www.skillsportal.ox.ac.uk) keeps campus researchers abreast of the development opportunities on offer, and most universities are putting money into improving training for Ph.D.s. "Determination and focus are key elements to success in research," she says.
Brian Fitzpatrick, associate director for analytical sciences at the site, joined Wyeth after working at a small clinical trials company. Wyeth took him to the US and UK for training before Fitzpatrick implemented what he had learned at Grange Castle. Fitzpatrick's enthusiasm for working in an industry team is palpable: "You're engaged with the academic community and you have hands-on opportunity to shape processes and molecules."
Fitzpatrick has seen the biotech scene change dramatically in less than a decade. "Grange Castle was the first mammalian cell culture facility in Ireland, so previously there weren't really a huge volume of opportunities." Back then, all of his postgraduate lab colleagues traveled overseas to seek out opportunities. "I think the horizon in Ireland is very different now. We've gone from being a small-molecule center to having a biotech focus—six years ago there was none of that." Now, researchers can take their pick: "For people with good degrees and experience there are limitless opportunities," says Fitzpatrick.
However, the country's Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation 2006-2013 document admits that Ireland's foundations are weak compared with other leading nations like Sweden or the US. Ireland is starting from a much smaller research base than many European countries. "It's difficult to invest too quickly in science, because you waste money that way," says Crawley. "You really need to build infrastructure, and people who can carry out the research, and that all takes time."
To further its scientific ambitions, Ireland wants to boost the number of people with advanced science and engineering qualifications, and develop its international profile as a world class R&D location. Research funding in Ireland has more than doubled in five years to exceed €680 million in 2005. SFI has specifically targeted high-level researchers in a number of its funding programs.
In previous years, emigration was often the first step on the Irish researcher's career ladder. "Twenty-five years ago many Irish people with good skills had to leave because of the lack of jobs," Crawley explains. "In some ways that's turning out to be an advantage, because a number of people would like to come back, including senior professors."
SFI has Research Professor Recruitment Awards that include a startup package of up to €1 million. "In the US, if you were trying to recruit even a junior person you might have to pay as much as half a million or a million dollars as a startup fund. We are going to step in and help Irish universities attract really top class people from outside Ireland with these grants," Crawley continues. Around 50 percent of SFI's funding goes to non-Irish researchers or researchers returning to Ireland from abroad. SFI has also just launched the new Stokes Professorships and Lectureships to attract faculty from outside Ireland. These are available for biomedical science, ICT, and mathematics. Fitzgerald has witnessed the tide begin to turn: "We were net exporters of researchers a few years ago, but that's changed now and we're bringing people back into the country."
Jointly funded research studentships for industry-relevant research have grown rapidly, helped by a strong Irish tradition of doctoral training funded by or for industry. Examples are the Irish Research Council's Embark Cooperative Awards and SFI Centres for Science Engineering and Technology (CSET). The latter help to fund partnerships across academe and industry to aid new and existing Irish-based technology companies with grants of €1 million to €5 million each year for five years.
Part of the Irish strategy to double its output of Ph.D.s includes the funding of supporting roles in research teams. There are plans to add 350 principal investigator positions and 1,050 postdoctoral researchers by 2013 as well as increasing the pool of research assistants and technicians. This move has considerable support, and will arguably make Ireland an attractive location to undertake a Ph.D.
Historical deficits in infrastructure are being remedied by investment in state-of-the-art facilities. Major initiatives include the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT). Construction is under way at University College Dublin's Belfield campus and should be completed by 2008, with a strong focus on applied research. The university will also be home to the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC). Appropriate space and technology are a challenge everywhere, Fitzgerald says. "But we have a lot of catching up to do to be on a par with top universities in Europe and the US."
Keeping Your Options Open
What academic communities in both the UK and Ireland have in common is a wide range of opportunities for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, but a limited number of academic positions to move into. "Those young people have to realize and look at career paths outside of academia—only a small fraction of them will finish up doing research in universities," says Crawley.
Good quality industry researchers are in demand, especially those with a flexible outlook and good interpersonal skills. Tony Bradshaw from the BioIndustries Association says that pharmaceutical development is just one sector where there are fantastic opportunities and a shortage of applicants. But he thinks the smartest UK applicants should consider openings in academia as well as biotech and pharma. "You'd be really competitive if you could work in all three at some point in your career. There are roles to play at that interface."
Can Lynch see himself in academia for the long haul? "You have to—there's no point staying in academia unless you think you can get funding and run your own lab." Lynch is undeterred by a future at the thin end of the academic wedge. "Sequencing the human genome—that was only the first version and it was like planting a flag on the moon. There's just so much more to do."
Helen Carmichael is a freelance writer living in Dorset, UK.
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