Posted by: woodforthetrees | March 4, 2010

UK science: the people are our future

Attracting the best of the world to the UK

The UK needs to attract the very best scientists from around the world.

First the good news: the United Kingdom is second only to the United States for research productivity. We produce 13% of the most cited papers and 8% of the world’s publications. We lead the world in biological and social science and are very good at biomedical research.

Now the bad news: the cost of one chemist or one engineer in the US — and presumably in the UK — is the same as five chemists in China or 11 engineers in India. This week alone, 1,200 redundancies have been announced in research and development by the Leicestershire-based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

In the UK we are facing pressure to cut budgets, yet China and India are investing strongly in science and engineering. How on earth are we going to compete — or even survive — in this brave new world?

The Council for Science and Technology presents a stark choice in its report A Vision for UK Research (pdf) between ‘managed or neglected decline’ or investment in excellence and better development of the products of research.

It looks at the strength of our research base (it’s very good but still room for improvement) and our ability to convert this into economic and societal benefits (the results are patchy, but can probably be summed up as not terribly good). In the new terminology of the report, our research base is upstream research and the commercialisation is downstream research.

There are some very important points in this report. The first is that translational, or downstream, research should not come at the cost of a strong research base: it’s just impossible to predict where the next drug, green technology or engineering advance will come from and we limit our options too much by second-guessing the future.

Two examples come to mind here — one is of probably the most famous anti-cancer drug, Herceptin, which targets a protein kinase. Protein kinases were studied in labs for 25 years before anyone showed any commercial interest in them.

The other is of the Human Genome Project. Many people argued at the outset that there was no point sequencing the non-coding DNA (known sometimes as junk DNA) and that everyone should just concentrate only on the DNA that codes for protein. This would have been a mistake: we now know that non-coding DNA contains important regulatory elements, which can be indicative of cancer predisposition, yet we could have missed this if we had concentrated on what was thought to be useful at the time.

The second important point from the report is the emphasis on people rather than specific research areas. Although government should have a high-level role in maintaining a broad base, the studies that are funded should be decided on the strength of the scientist, not so much the project.

This means attracting the best PhD students and the best researchers. We need to encourage outstanding scientists to establish themselves in the UK, and we need to build connections with emerging countries, in the way that Germany and France have begun to do.

And universities will have to think about how attractive they are to the brightest foreign students: there’s a tendency to think of foreign students only in terms of their cash value — they pay higher fees than home students — meaning that exceptional students from poorer background are attracted to the US or other countries where a range of scholarships exist. Instead, the CST proposes a national scholarship scheme.

More than anything else it’s people who are key to taking advantage of our upstream research base. There needs to be more interaction between industry and researchers in universities or institutes, which can be achieved partly by encouraging the best to move freely between these structures, without preventing people from returning to academia from industry by the lack of publication record. What works is when industry is partnership with academia.

But the most important factor is the role of the government in creating a stable environment that attracts business investment. The report suggests it can do this by setting long-term objectives, by investing in the national infrastructure and by being a lead user. Particularly, the report refers to the expected transition to a sustainable low carbon economy and the government’s role in assisting the development of the technologies we will need.

We need to up our game if we are to capitalise on our exceptional research base and it will rely on a partnership between academia, industry and the government brokered by exceptional people. It’s exciting to see such a vision, and to note that by looking outwards that the UK economy will benefit. For British post-graduate students or researchers it might make less comforting reading: the economy will thrive through attracting the best overseas researchers here, but our own home-grown researchers will only survive if they too are the best in the world.

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