Top academic scientists could soon be enticed to stay in Britain with salaries of up to £100,000. The scheme is part of a White Paper that aims to boost British science. Announced last Wednesday by Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the £4 million cash injection should help keep--or lure back--up to 50 of Britain's brightest researchers. The new salary scheme was the latest in an unusual streak of good news for British scientists in recent weeks, kicking off with Chancellor Gordon Brown's announcement of a £1 billion infrastructure fund at the beginning of July.
In aiming to both attract high flyers to the UK, and hang on to those already here, the ambitious plan is to reverse the brain drain and turn it into a brain gain. Half the annual £4 million bounty will come from the Department of Trade and Industry, and half from a charity, the Wolfson Foundation. Details of how the money will be allocated are still to be decided, but the plan is that recipients will be able to use it flexibly, having the option to hire an additional research assistant or buy equipment if they don't want to use all of it for a salary hike. Immunologist Doug Fearon was lured to the UK from the United States 7 years ago by the Wellcome Trust. Because the Trust pays generous salaries by UK standards, money wasn't an issue for him, but "it certainly is a problem when we've thought about trying to recruit people from the States." His hopes of bringing a further immunologist to his department at the University of Cambridge have foundered on the salary question. Fearon hopes that the fund isn't spent only on well-established scientists. "I think they should be targeting high flyers at any stage of their career development," he says.
What Else the White Paper Says
The fund will be administered by the Royal Society and is designed to build on the success of a current Royal Society programme which boosts the salaries of just 15 professors. But, although he welcomed the new fund, Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science, sounded a note of caution. Fifty researchers is "less than half a person per university," he points out. "The real problem is that nobody's paid enough. If you want to keep the best it's not just the top professors you want." With the announcement earlier in the month that stipends for Ph.D. students are to rise to £9000 by 2003, the Government hopes to halt the decline in the number of students embarking on scientific careers. Postdocs and junior lecturers have less to celebrate, however. "We need an examination of the whole system and level of university lecturer's pay," says David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.
Also highlighted in the White Paper are other boosts to science funding including the £1 billion infrastructure package and a tripling of the money available to universities to support collaborations with private industry. For Cotgreave, the most pleasing aspect of the paper is "the fact that there is an explicit acknowledgement that all the other policies depend on the science base and the people who work in it," adding that in the 7 years since the last science White Paper there has been a lot of complacency on the part of policy-makers. "The quality of the science base is something which has to be actively pursued," says Cotgreave.