The success of a British scientist whose pioneering work led to the world's first successful ovary graft, announced last week, has underlined the fact that some of the country's brightest and best in medical research are packing their bags and heading for laboratories overseas, where they'll be joining colleagues who have already left.
Roger Gosden, the man behind the transplant, is leaving for Canada, complaining that the climate for science and scientists has become hostile in Britain. Shortly after announcing the results of his pioneering research, which offers hope of extended fertility to thousands of women, Professor Gosden said: "With all the fuss over GM food and so on, it is difficult to be a scientist in Britain. One does not feel proud of being a scientist any longer."
If the Government did not hear Professor Gosden, they will get a similar message tomorrow from the 107 medical charities which spend more than pounds 400m a year funding much of the cutting-edge research carried out in Britain - research that is threatened by the departure of so many top brains in practically every field of medicine.
The umbrella organisation for the charities, the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), will tell a fringe meeting of the Labour Party conference that genetic research is vital and cannot be sidelined. Professor Gosden joins a long list of deserters that grows longer every day. Two leading cancer experts have left for America in the last six weeks, taking six of their researchers with them. An internationally renowned Oxford scientist who discovered the gene for a kidney disease goes next month, and a top biochemist has been head-hunted by a French pharmaceutical company and departs before the end of the year.
According to the scientists, the problem is not that Britain isn't producing the best medical researchers; it's simply that they cannot be retained. Among the attractions is the lure of more money - pounds 90,000 for a professorship in the US compared to as little as pounds 29,000 in the UK - as well as better resources. The other factor, identified by Professor Gosden, and one that is becoming of increasing importance, is the poor image that scientists now have in Britain compared to much of the rest of Europe and America.
One leading cancer re-searcher told the Independent on Sunday: "The popular British image of science is of men in white coats and faded cords killing animals needlessly and generally mucking about with nature. Some areas of science are so poorly thought of, you don't tell people at dinner parties what your real job is any more.''
Partly as a result of this poor public esteem, some key jobs are not being filled. According to Diana Garnham, director of the AMRC, there are currently 55 vacant clinical professorships in the UK. She says: "Our concern is that we don't have the right environment in which to develop genetic research. We are not only losing people who are going abroad. The best young scientists are not going into medical research - they are going into banking and the City. At one stage the top candidates in biochemistry at King's College in London went into the City rather than into science three years in a row."
Many medical researchers want the Government to operate a matching funding policy, putting the same money in as the charities. It's a practice that has been adopted in a number of countries, including Ireland. At present, government funding is woefully low. Cancer researchers, for example, say they get around pounds 14m from the Government, which is not much more than the equivalent of pounds 150 for each of the people who die in Britain from the disease every year. In the US, the government puts pounds 1.7bn into cancer research.
Professor Gordon McPhee, director general of the Cancer Research campaign, says: "Every country in Europe I know of, short of Estonia, spends more than the British government. It is an absolute disgrace."
Many good scientists do stay, but Professor McPhee sometimes wonders why. "We do have some extraordinary scientists who we have managed to keep, God knows how," he says. "Some of them, like Professor David Lane in Dundee, co- finder of the p53 gene (the cell guardian gene that protects the body against cancer), must get a job offer every week. It never fails to astonish me that they stay.''
Another problem is the lack of a clear career path for medical researchers. Tony Rutherford, director of the reproductive medical unit at Leeds, where Professor Gosden carried out his work, says: "There are a lot of good graduates coming through, who then have to look for technician jobs and then post-doctoral jobs. If they are lucky they will get a job paying pounds 14,000 a year in their late twenties. Even at the top the salaries are not high. A chair such as that held by Roger Gosden would pay around pounds 42,000 compared to around pounds 90,000 or more in the States."
Medical researchers have always migrated, but the last decade has seen a big increase in the exodus of the brightest lights. In many cases the scientists take research associates with them, leaving an even bigger gap. In the normal course of events, it would be these research associates who would make up the next generation of front-line scientists.
Britain has a very good record of medical firsts, thanks to the innovators who have put the country at the cutting edge of medical science. The danger now is that unless the men and women in our universities are made to feel wanted, the ground could be lost.
Dr Alison Goate, a member of the team that discovered two of the genes responsible for the early onset of Alzheimer's disease, is now doing research in St Louis, Missouri RESEARCH INTO AGEING
Alan Balmain, professor of experimental oncology at Dundee University, developed the classic models of cancer in skin. He is now at the University of California at San Francisco.
Professor John Hardy, one of the team of molecular biologists at St Mary's Hospital, London, who discovered genes responsible for early- onset Alzheimer's, is now at the Mayo Clinic in the US.
Dr Dai Chaplin is a leading specialist in vascular targeting, whose research looked at blood cells in tumours. He is currently working for a European company.
Professor Gerard Evan of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund is a world authority on programmed cell death. He is now at the University of California and has taken four researchers with him. One of them said yesterday that there was general concern among the team about the research climate in Britain.
Professor Roger Gosden, responsible for the first ovarian transplant, is leaving the Chair of Reproductive Biology at Leeds University for McGill University's Royal Victoria Hospital in Quebec.
AND THE OTHERS...
Dr Karen Edney, an expert in reproductive biology, has left for the University of Western Australia.
Dr Geoff Arnold, an MRC specialist formerly at Reading University, has joined the Pasteur Institute.
Professor Bob Williamson led the world-beating team of molecular biologists at St Mary's Hospital, London. He is now in Australia.
Professor John Hickman, a world-renowned biochemist at Manchester University, is about to leave to join a European company.
Professor Hartmut Land, a leading cancer biologist, is leaving for Rochester University, New York.
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