As the lead story today on In-Pharmatechnologist.com highlights, the European brain-drain is far from slowing down with the US continuing to attract researchers and entrepreneurs. A fact that has had, and will continue to have, a serious impact on European science. How are European governments tackling the problem? A report published this week warns that in the UK, billions of pounds of taxpayer spending on British science will be wasted without serious reform of the way it is managed.
The UK has been at the forefront of world scientific research, but is now lagging. Britain's celebrated scientists are being betrayed by deep-rooted mismanagement, writes Stuart Lyons in Harnessing our Genius, published this week by the Centre for Policy Studies.
The Department of Trade and Industry's science budget has risen from £1.6 billion (€2.3bn) in 1997 to £2 billion this year. It is now the largest operational budget of that department and is set to rise to almost £3 billion in 2005-06.
This increase in expenditure may or may not be justified. But the way funds are managed is not, continues the report. "There is no detailed analysis of how money is applied, whether it is applied successfully, and whether the planned increases are properly directed. Too many top quality grant proposals are sacrificed through mismanagement," claims the paper.
Last week, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee condemned the Medical Research Council for harming "the reputation of the organisation and causing great resentment among and inconvenience to the research community it is meant to be supporting."
But Lyons finds that these problems are common throughout Britain's scientific establishment. For the six grant-awarding Research Councils all suffer from antiquated working practices. The distinctions between strategy, governance and management are blurred. Standards of financial reporting in the Research Councils are generally inadequate, if not abysmal, he writes.
Last year, the Government established 'Research Councils UK' (RCUK) in an attempt to govern and co-ordinate the Research Councils. This was an opportunity to introduce effective management of Britain's science. But RCUK has no powers. For Lyons, "its constitution, governance and terms of reference are flawed. It lacks the authority to deliver change in the management of science".
Lyons suggests that the American National Science Foundation (NSF) is a far more effective organisation. It has greater independence, efficiency, sense of purpose and accountability, and makes a broader contribution to the community. It operates within the framework of a vibrant and competitive research and development economy, in which the transfer of knowledge and intellectual property rights to the commercial sector is managed to greater public benefit.
Lyons recommends modelling the management of Britain's science on the more successful NSF. As well as sponsoring 'blue skies' research, for Lyons the management of Britain's science should address far more vigorously the release of intellectual property rights, the stimulation of commercial collaboration, and the development of more productive relationships between research professionals and the venture capital market.
Only then, writes the author of the paper, can the billions of pounds of taxpayers' money being invested in Britain's rightly-celebrated scientists be justified.