Underfunded scientists sell expertise abroad

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The Independent Online
British scientists are preparing to sell their world-beating expertise abroad, discouraged by the new Government's apparent reluctance to fund research.

The Government says the money isn't there. But, says Charles Arthur, Science Editor, the true fault lies elsewhere.

David Payne boarded a plane back from the US yesterday feeling pleased. He may have secured the funding for the University of Southampton's Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) to continue its 30 years of ground- breaking research into optical systems, now one of the most important modern technologies.

Professor Payne's solution is simple: sell the expertise of the 120 staff at the ORC to the University of Connecticut, lock, stock and barrel. Why would he do that? Because from 1999, half of the ORC's funding, a pounds 2m grant from the UK's Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) is being cut. Only short-term projects - a couple of years - will be considered.

As an innovator who has made many contributions to the development of fibre-optics, which can carry thousands of channels on glass fibres, Professor Payne's response might seem like pique. But he is making a scientific choice - between a country which seems to value his work, and Britain.

This is not an isolated case. All over Britain, scientists who voted in May for Labour (and many did) in the hope that it would mean a vote for better and more long-term funding, have found that the economic strictures adopted by the party leave no room for maneouvre. Some are taking direct action, like Professor Payne.

The EPSRC insists that the cuts have been planned for some time, and points out that the ORC is already receiving strong industry support, working with 70 companies.

Professor Payne is less happy, even about the radical solution he is considering. "The consequence would be that the intellectual property of anything that we invent and patent would go overseas," he said yesterday. "I don't think the EPSRC has thought this through."

Other scientists already know the feeling. Last year Sir Harold Kroto, of the Unversity of Sussex, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry - hours after he was turned down by the EPSRC for funding of a three-year project into fullerenes, the molecules which won him the prize.

Yesterday he said, "I would like to see the Government approach the 21st century understanding that science is the dominant culture of this century, and will be even more dominant in the next. You need to understand it to survive.

"Anybody who doesn't think that science and technology have freed us from the caves should try a simple experiment. Go home and turn the electricity off for a day. See what it's like."

At the core of this debate is the question: how much should the Government fund scientific research? Two definitions are usually offered for laboratory work: "basic" (or "blue-sky") and "applied". Basic research asks questions such as "what would happen if you got all the atoms in a solid to vibrate in step?" and produces the laser. Applied research takes that and puts it in compact disc players, missile-aiming systems, accurate range-finders and new communications devices. Generally, people argue that government should fund basic research, and industry pay for applied research.

But the nature of science means that basic research is published and available worldwide. Firms in other countries can apply concepts developed by British scientists with British taxpayers' money. In fact, a Japanese government study found that more than half of the concepts and discoveries that its companies were exploiting had originated in the UK.

So should the Government abandon basic research funding? Today John Battle, the industry minister with responsibility for science and technology, is meeting the pressure group Save British Science in Leeds. Denis Noble, SBS's secretary, said: "We are specifically going to follow up on a comment he made last week, that he is 'very worried whether there will be enough seedcorn for the future'. The first issue is how he's going to deliver on that." Mr Battle has made what scientists regard as encouraging noises about funding. But they prefer to judge on actions.

Sir Harold points out that the lesson to be drawn from the Japanese study is not quite what it seems. "It suggests that we're doing really well at producing and funding basic research here," he said. "But it points the finger at industry. Why isn't industry taking up these ideas?"