Britain is facing a major brain drain as scientists abandon the country for better-funded jobs abroad, a Guardian investigation reveals today.
Leading researchers, including an Oxford professor of physics and a stem cell researcher seeking a cure for the commonest form of blindness, say they are poised to quit Britain. Meanwhile the heads of several prestigious universities warn that proposed government cuts to Britain’s science budget threaten “an insidious grinding down of the UK research community”.
This comes against a background in which universities say they are already struggling to attract the best candidates to important research and teaching posts, and warnings that this month’s spending review could, according to some estimates, take as much as 25% out of Britain’s total spending on scientific research.
The Guardian has spoken to researchers in fields ranging from cancer and human fertility to nuclear physics, and found that many are preparing to emigrate. Professor Brian Foster, a particle physicist at Oxford, said he was likely to shift most of his research to Germany, having been offered a professorship at Hamburg University which comes with £4.3m to spend on research.
Dr Carlos Gias, a stem cell researcher at University College London, has decided to move either to Singapore or the US. Gias, whose research is focused on a form of blindness called age-related macular degeneration, said: “I have seen people from this department leaving to Singapore, and they have been trying to find jobs in Britain and they couldn’t. It’s not been just one or two [but] several of them, and [in Singapore] … they don’t have any problems of funding.”
Carlos Gias, a stem-cell researcher at University College London, tells Jeevan Vasagar why he is considering moving away from the UK to further his career
Link to this audio Professor Don Nutbeam, vice-chancellor of Southampton University, said fears of cuts to the science budget and greater investment in countries such as Singapore, France and Germany would exacerbate the problem.
He said that he expected a steady loss of researchers and believed that Britain’s world ranking in research could be undone within five years. “There will be an insidious grinding down of the UK research community if the sorts of cuts being talked about are enacted,” he said.
Even the most prestigious universities are concerned. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who will become the vice-chancellor of Cambridge tomorrow, said that while his university was relatively insulated by its status, he shared fears that Britain’s international competitors were accelerating while Britain hit the brake. “Young researchers will always look to see where there is the greatest opportunity to fund the science,” he said. “We’re not talking about salary levels. For many researchers it is about the infrastructure, the facilities, the capacity to grow their groups, and anything which undermines that is going to make it more difficult for institutions to recruit high-level people.”
Even at Cambridge, the best candidates for posts in neuroscience and aeronautics have been lured elsewhere because of generous start-up funding. “Our competitors have resources to make available six-figure start-up packages for relatively junior staff; we can only do that, and at a stretch, for professorial staff,” a Cambridge spokesman said.
Major science funders have outlined areas of research that could be shut down if significant cuts materialise. The Medical Research Council is considering a withdrawal from cancer research to save £105m.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council fears cuts could force it to mothball major laboratories such as the £145m ISIS neutron source in Oxfordshire. Britain’s involvement in other international facilities, such as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, is also threatened.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will close down studentships to manage a minor reduction in funding and will rescind up to £135m of grants already awarded if cuts are deeper.
Nick Wright, pro-vice chancellor for research at Newcastle University, said his institution was already having recruitment problems.
“I’ve got recent direct experience sitting as the chair of a professorial recruitment panel and candidates from North America asking us whether UK research funding was going to be cut and what the prognosis was for the future,” he said.
“We have to tell the truth and it’s clear that disappoints them. I’m talking about a candidate from a Canadian university working in medical research, where [funding] was one of the clinchers.”
Additional reporting by Ian Sample and Alok Jha