LEADING ARTICLE : Brain-drain Britai

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The Independent Online
Finding a cure for Alzheimer's ranks up there with Aids cures, cancer cures and world peace. Anyone who has seen a relative lose their memory and their personality to the disease, or merely followed the decline of Felix on the BBC's Our Friends in the North, should toast to a group of scientists at the Roskamp laboratories in Tampa, Florida. They have made a significant new discovery about the mechanics of the disease, bringing them closer to finding a cure.

But it is not an American discovery. Five years ago, a team at St Mary's Hospital in London established a genetic component in Alzheimer's disease. When British universities and hospitals couldn't stump up enough cash and facilities to fund intensive research, many of the scientists were seduced abroad - among them Professor Michael Mullan, who joined the Roskamp group. So there we were, the Brits, at the forefront of medical research. Sadly, we didn't have the cash and the commitment to see it through.

Higher salaries, more status, better research facilities and closer links with industry abroad have long been cited as the causes of the notorious brain-drain of scientists from British universities. Many US universities, for example, draw heavily on sponsorship from commercial companies. In Britain, disdain for science among businesses combined with suspicion of commerce among academics have inhibited productive partnerships for too long.

The pressure for change is growing. Universities across the country are becoming ever more imaginative - and desperate - in their search for cash. Leading computer companies say research technology in universities is usually so outdated that they need to retrain graduate researchers anyway. The best international companies now realise the importance of vibrant research cultures that could match anything on offer in a university. Research partnerships between companies and universities will be vital if Britain is not to lose more Professor Mullans and find its way back to the frontier of research.