18 Oct 2010

Is the Treasury thinking about Britain's brain drain?

I met up with a friend over the weekend who has been offered an endowed Professorship at one the UK’s “Great Universities”. He’s a scientist and the post is at the top of his particular proclivity. He is 80 per cent certain of rejecting the Chair and is presently on track to leave Britain for an emerging Asian University, where he has been offered a higher salary.

More important, my friend ( I shall call him Roberts, although that’s not his name) is making his decision on the basis that the country in which this University is set has just increased its budgetary investment in University research by some 25 per cent. His new post is blessed with a significantly uprated research budget.

Dr Roberts is at the cutting edge of scientific research in a specialist field in which he and his UK team are world leaders. He has three major world-wide trials of products still in train – trials that are conducted and led from this country.

The reason Dr Roberts is almost certain to reject the offer of the most prestigious University Chair in his field in this country is that it now comes with no guarantee of  any research budget.

Dr Roberts’ final decision will be considerably influenced by Chancellor George Osborne’s “Spending Review” this Wednesday. If the University research funding budget is slashed, he’ll definitely be leaving. If, by chance, Mr Osborne has heeded calls to protect it, he will look again at the options for staying.

Whilst this is not the only determining factor, it is a very significant one for him. He tells me that the “research culture” at British universities is under siege, and that although there are uncertainties in the country to which he is likely to leave, they are outweighed by the prospect of being able to go on to the next level of research to which he needs now to move.

Dr Roberts tells me that what he is likely to do is to move his family to Asia, and to commute for a time to Britain to complete his trials for which he still has funding. He will do this in a way that will guarantee that he stays in Britain for under  90 days a year , so as not to attract UK tax.

When his trials end in 2013, his links with UK research will end. Dr Roberts is 45-years-old, with a very significant international reputation. His research, if successful – and the signs are excellent – will lead to considerable job creation in the long term, jobs which are in danger of being exported along with Roberts’ considerable scientific skills.

The UK can ill afford the loss of the skills of men and women like my friend Roberts. Is anyone in the Treasury thinking about Roberts and the implications of his loss to an emerging Asian University?

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