Cash cuts hit research by Nobel winner

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The Independent Online
A BRITISH Nobel Prize-winning scientist has been refused funding for research because of government spending cuts.

Professor Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1973, was asking for less than pounds 30,000 a year, but has had his applications turned down three times by the government-funded Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC).

Sir Geoffrey, the only British Chemistry Nobel laureate still working in a university chemistry department, wanted the money to pay a post-doctoral researcher to work with him at Imperial College, London, for three years. Even in central London, a 24-year-old researcher with a PhD would get only pounds 12,638 a year, the balance going to buying chemicals and equipment.

Sir Geoffrey specialises in inorganic chemistry and has been synthesising new compounds of the platinum group of metals. While one of the best known uses of platinum is in catalytic converters in cars, the group is widely used in industry.

Sir Geoffrey's research led to the discovery of the Wilkinson catalyst, which is used by pharmaceutical companies the world over. He estimates that products using his catalyst have annual sales of more than dollars 6bn.

Sir Geoffrey emphasises that his work is 'blue skies' research, with no immediate application in mind: 'I just try to think up new chemistry.' However, another of his discoveries, which was licensed to Johnson Matthey, the company which specialises in refining rare and precious metals, proved so lucrative that the company refurbished a laboratory at Imperial College for Sir Geoffrey's use when he reached retirement age.

Although he won the Nobel Prize 20 years ago, Sir Geoffrey's recent work has maintained his reputation and has been rapidly published in international scientific journals. 'I have sent the rejection slip from the SERC to my local MP,' Sir Geoffrey said. 'I think it is a bit thick that the Government can spend pounds 140,000 a year keeping a criminal in jail but cannot fund one postdoctoral fellowship.'

Ironically, the chairman of the committee which rejected Sir Geoffrey's request is one of his former students. Professor Jon McCleverty, of Bristol University, said: 'We've been screwed to the wall. Funds have been so tight that we've had difficulty in funding fellows of the Royal Society and professors of chemistry, as well as Geoffrey.'

Sir Geoffrey's proposed research has joined the long list of 'unfunded alphas' - projects which are top rated but for which there is no money. The Science and Engineering Research Council pointed out that it was able to fund fewer than half the alpha-rated projects submitted to it in 1991-92. In chemistry it provided less than a third of the money requested.

Sir Geoffrey said the chemical industry was one of the biggest earners for this country: 'Without new chemistry, industry would perish . . . There is a danger that this country is going to go down the slippery slope in chemistry and it will take decades to recover once you lose industrial competitiveness.'