Science: MONEY TO LEARN

British science is pounds 1.1bn richer this month. Hilary Bower asks the people on the cutting edge where the cash should be splashed
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The Independent Culture
RESEARCHERS are infamous for being one-eyed about their particular branch of science. Whether it's particle physics, a budding Viagra, or the creation of a new polymer, ask the scientists involved who most deserves a sizeable dollop of new cash and you'd imagine few would refrain from answering in the first person singular.

But surprisingly enough, the scientific community's response to just that question has been far more altruistic. In the face of the government's pledge of an extra pounds 700m for scientific endeavours over the next three years - the largest percentage increase of any single item in the Comprehensive Spending Review - topped off to pounds 1.1 billion by a pounds 400m contribution from the Wellcome Trust, pet projects appear to be out and the common good of British science in on the scientists' wish lists.

For Philip Cohen, a Royal Society professor and director of the Medical Research Council's Protein Phosphorylation Unit, the key to making the biggest impact with the new cash is people, people, people. "I would try to get the very best British scientists back from North America, even if it cost a few million per person."

It doesn't matter what their area is. If you have world-beating scientists, says Cohen, exciting things develop not only from what they're doing, but from the people they attract to work with them. "New initiatives in this and that - Aids, BSE and the like - are the ruses the MRC and others have used in recent years to get more money out of the government and keep things running, but it's not ideal. Put some of the money into the very best scientists - that'll have the biggest impact."

Professor Colin Blakemore, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, has just enough fingers on one hand to count off his targets for most urgent investment.

"We have serious problems in science education before university level. We have problems preparing undergraduates for graduate work. We have problems with graduate training. We have problems with academic salaries - someone with a 10-year record in a university teaching post still gets less than a police cadet. Then we have the basic funding of research and facilities."

From a personal point of view, he says, nationwide laboratory refurbishment - one of the government's stated priorities - would be his own. "My lab is incredibly small, and hasn't seen a lick of paint in 19 years. We are 18 people and have a few feet each. And these are laboratories in which molecular biological work and tissue culture, really high-grade `clean' work, is being done and we have difficulty keeping the equipment sterile. If you walk around virtually any British lab and compare it with those in Europe or the US, it looks so shabby it's embarrassing."

Changes in funding under the Conservatives left university and charity research laboratories totally dependent on grants to maintain basic facilities. As a result, the withdrawal of one grant for a year meant the loss of an essential technician or a workshop structure needed to support a whole department, just because of the way overheads were covered - or not, as the case may be.

Another problem, Blakemore adds, is that Britain's reputation in science is currently sustained by people who were trained before the funding problems began. "British undergraduates are not moving into graduate work," says Blakemore. "I've taken very few in recent years, but I've taken large numbers from Greece, Germany, Japan, Hungary, South Africa, the US. The resources I have at my disposal are being used to train the next generation of research workers for other countries. The international flow of students is a very good thing, but at the moment it is out of balance. The reason is the utter inadequacy of salaries for research council studentships - about pounds 6,000 a year. These are poverty levels."

The government seems to have heard at least some of these pleas, and has earmarked a good chunk of the new money - pounds 600m - for upgrading ill- equipped university laboratories. It has also headlined its wish to see increased research in molecular science and in the unravelling of genetic codes. The cash will increase the national research councils' overall budget from pounds 1,338m in 1998-9 to pounds 1,670m in 2001-2 - and although specific allocations will not be made to the seven councils until October, Professor George Radda, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, is already exploring possible projects.

"We are planning two major research programmes. One, the Post-Genome Challenge, builds on genomic information and uses basic science to understand the mechanism of diseases such as cancer, mental health conditions, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The other is Health Inequalities. With the growth of genomics, we'll be able to initiate studies right across the population which will help us understand the interaction between genetic variability and the environment - socio-economic factors, lifestyle, behaviour, the workplace - and its effects on health and disease." The boost in funding has come at a critical moment, adds Radda, given the advances made by researchers in other countries. Any later, and British science risked missing the genomic boat.

Professor Richard Joyner is executive committee chairman of the Save British Science group, set up in 1986 to draw attention to the degeneration of facilities and funding. He supports both of the government's stated priorities, but is equally pleased by the Wellcome Trust's intention to replace the UK's geriatric radiation equipment. The only machine in our country able to reveal molecular structures, the synchrotron radiation equipment is a vital source of some of the most basic information required by modern scientists, and replacing it will save UK scientists from having to beg European colleagues for time on their equipment.

But, Joyner stresses, when it comes to funding specific areas of science in the hope of a quick impact, "you can't just pick winners. We should be supporting the best scientists no matter which field they're in, because the impact of science these days is such that in the medium term, almost nothing is irrelevant. A classic case of trying to pick a winner was Richard Nixon's crusade against cancer. But scientific problems are solved when the intellectual environment is right. You can't do it to order by throwing money at it."

Sir Aaron Klug, president of the Royal Society, also urges research councils not to neglect "curiosity-based research" into the basic sciences that may not appear immediately relevant. "The whole point about basic research is that you can't prove its relevance. Take Sir Harold Kroto's work on Buckminsterfullerenes [the new carbon compound]. People are now making so-called nanotubes of carbon which have all sorts of electrical properties, but in fact Harry Kroto set out to identify the signals that were coming from carbon atoms in space. You couldn't have predicted what is now being done with his research."

For Professor Ian Halliday, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, essential projects are those which open up "the formation of the universe and help us understand more about its development. Issues such as the formation of stars and the structure of galaxies, the differences between matter and anti-matter, could all be given higher priority."

Investing in the Large Hadron Collider being built at Cern in Geneva, which will probe the physics of matter at energies 10 times greater than are now possible, would also allow British researchers into scientific exploitation of the experiment when it begins to run early in the next millennium, he adds; while funding development of at least one of the instruments for the next Hubble Telescope would secure British science priority access to the resulting data.

But Sir Martin Rees, Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and member of the Save British Science advisory council, also puts in a plea for the industrial sciences - organic chemistry, mainstream physics, the material sciences - which, unlike the biological sciences, receive no charitable or commercial funding.

"I'm full of admiration for the biological side of science, but we have missed many opportunities on the industrial side. I know people who are very high up in the field of electron microscopes who have basically stopped competing. The physical sciences have been more dependent on the government and therefore much more damaged by the squeeze in funding."

So, like any pay rise or minor Lottery success, it appears this new cash boost has already been spent several times over. And with wish lists growing more explosively than the Big Bang, it's important to put the amounts in to perspective. Most of Britain's competitors, for example, already fund science at twice this level. In 1994, says Professor Blakemore, Britain was 16th in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league of per capita expenditure on university research. "Behind Iceland!" he splutters. "Can you name me a single Icelandic scientist? And our expenditure has been decreasing progressively since then." The US and Japan - even in its parlous economic state - have both committed themselves to doubling science funding over the next 10 years.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the billion-pound bouquet has allowed scientists nationwide to breathe a huge sigh of relief, says Blakemore. "It is a fantastic gesture, terrifically reassuring. We've gone through a very difficult first year under Labour because of the commitment to stick to Tory spending limits, and many of us were getting very despondent."

But even this "fantastic gesture" won't redress the imbalance immediately. "What we really want to know is that all the issues have been thought through and that we will be left with sustainable, stable funding. Despite its lack of sexiness and immediate voter appeal, science is of fundamental importance to the country - to its culture, to the economy, to wealth creation. This must be maintained." !

HOW THE MONEY WILL BE SPENT

The pounds 1.1bn, spread over three years, will be made up of pounds 700m from the government and pounds 400m from the Wellcome Trust, the world's largest research charity. It will be divided into: pounds 600m to create new laboratories and refurbish existing university labs and equipment; pounds 400m to the seven research councils for new projects; and pounds 100m from the WT towards replacing Britain's ageing synchrotron radiation equipment with a new facility for high-intensity X-rays.

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