£4m fund will try to halt UK brain drain

Up to 50 selected academics will have salaries boosted to £100,000 by grants from the DTI and Wolfson Foundation

Scientists welcomed a £4m attempt by the Government yesterday to reverse the brain drain of senior researchers, but warned that boosting the salaries of the select few would not be enough. Real improvement would have to come from a wide-ranging improvement of scientists' salaries by the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE).

Scientists welcomed a £4m attempt by the Government yesterday to reverse the brain drain of senior researchers, but warned that boosting the salaries of the select few would not be enough. Real improvement would have to come from a wide-ranging improvement of scientists' salaries by the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE).

The £4m extra a year is expected to last for the next four years, half provided by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and half by the Wolfson Foundation charity. Part of the money will be used to top up the salaries of 50 selected academics to a limit of £100,000 a year.

Sir Bob May, the Government's chief scientific adviser, compared science with soccer. "This is an attempt to be more competitive and recruit the David Beckhams of science," he said. Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, added: "There is global competition for scientists and we have to ensure we're in the premier league."

The rest of the cash will be used for other incentives such as providing research assistants and travel opportunities.

Ministers hope the move, announced as part of the Government's Science White Paper, will persuade top scientists and young rising stars to stay, and attract back some who have left for other countries, mainly America.

The pressure group Save British Science (SBS), formed in 1986 to lobby for better facilities, opportunities and salaries for scientists in Britain, said the measures were good, but they did not tackle the root problem of low salaries and antiquated facilities for most researchers.

"The DTI has recognised the enormous problem and done what they can," said Richard Joyner, chairman of SBS. "But they're really only putting sticking plaster over a much bigger problem. And the problem is with the DfEE, and Tessa Blackstone and David Blunkett, the ministers responsible for academics' salaries in general."

Dr Peter Cotgreave, director of SBS, said: "The Government has admitted researchers are paid poorly, and it has made a small start towards doing something about it. SBS is fed up with spurious arguments that there is no evidence of a problem in recruiting and retaining the best people in science. For years, we've been saying this is nonsense, and the new fund to top up salaries is an acknowledgment that we have been right all along."

The 50 scientists whose salaries may be boosted by up to £50,000 annually will be chosen by a panel of experts from the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineers and the Wolfson Foundation research charity.

Each scientist seeking the funding will have to apply. That, said Professor Joyner, "will make it divisive, and lead to game-playing by scientists who want to move up".

Dr Cotgreave said ministers at the DfEE should "take their heads out of the sand and realise they are responsible for the universities, which is where most of the UK's publicly funded research is done. They should be providing funds to pay lecturers and professors proper salaries."

The science minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville said: "Fifty key people in science will make a big difference."

The White Paper also dealt with how the 7 per cent per annum increase in science funding over the next three years would be allocated. It set out proposals to improve exploitation of discoveries; £250m will go to boost research work into "frontier" areas of science.

In addition, a Higher Education Innovation Fund worth £140m would create better links between universities and the world of commerce, and help small firms to exploit research.

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