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Research Matters: Britain beats the recession to remain on the cutting edge

Culture of enquiry and curiosity attracts talent from all over the world

At a time when UK unemployment is rising and the economic future looks uncertain, you might think researchers seek opportunities elsewhere. However, the UK remains one of the world's best places to be a researcher. Opportunities to work at the cutting-edge of technology, science and thought are enormous and attract not only our best UK minds but talent from around the world.

The British research system is highly efficient. We are the most productive research nation in the world, even compared to countries investing far more cash, such as the United States, China and Germany. And we lead in many areas. For example, a pioneering expedition from the British Antarctic Survey to Lake Ellsworth in the Antarctic aims to be the first in the world to drill through the ice cap and take samples from an ancient sub-glacial lake. Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the team hopes to reveal new forms of life and provide vital clues about climate change. Teams from both the United States and Russia are preparing to investigate similar lakes but it is likely the British team will get there first. A critical factor in their success will be the unique equipment designed and built by researchers in the UK.

One reason why we are so good at producing world-leading research that gives good returns on investment has to be the people who make up the UK research base. Investment in individuals through the course of their research careers can generate numerous innovations and partnerships that in turn shape the direction of future research. Research is at heart a people business and smart people are drawn to work with other smart people.

International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – 2011, a report by Elsevier for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, found the UK is exceptionally effective in attracting the best minds from around the world. There is something magnetic about our intensely-networked island that encourages ground-breaking researchers to work here. It is a culture of enquiry and curiosity: that precious, virtuous circle where the best attract the best and are given opportunities and investment in up-to-date facilities.

Research Councils UK (RCUK) believes continued investment in researchers' skills and training is crucial to help UK research and thus stimulate economic growth. For example, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in January announced a £67 million investment in postgraduate training and development in bioscience. It includes support for 660 four-year PhD students and 70 studentships for postgraduates. Similar opportunities are available across the research councils.

Dr Keisuke Kaji attests to the value of his Medical Research Council (MRC) fellowship. Having completed a PhD in fertilisation research in his native Japan, Dr Kaji moved to Edinburgh and, for the past eight years, has worked on stem cells. His work could pave the way for stem cells made from skin cells to be transplanted safely into humans for the first time. It might lead to cures for the likes of spinal cord injury, diabetes, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. Dr Kaji says his MRC fellowship has been "crucial".

More information about RCUK is available at www.rcuk.ac.uk