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Scientists

Volume 175: debated on Tuesday 26 June 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the meeting of the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) with Professor Duff and representatives of British scientists abroad.

I met Professor Michael Duff on 20 June. The main points which I made at our meeting were set out in Department of Education and Science press notice 202/90, dated 20 June, in which I pointed out that:

Science is international, and it is highly desirable that scientific careers should include experience of working abroad.
No single country in the modern world can afford first class facilities in every branch of science—and the British Government are actively promoting the development of first-class research facilities in selected areas in Britain, through:
  • (a) an overall increase in the science budget—up 27 per cent. in real terms since 1979;
  • (b) the development of specialist "interdisciplinary research centres"; and
  • (c) the more selective allocation of university research funding by the UFC.
  • The "brain drain" is a field in which anecdotes are drawn upon for lobbying purposes, but in which facts are hard to come by. The only overall statistics which are available are those collected by the universities and published in the Universities Statistical Record. These show (a) that there has been a net inflow of academic staff into British universities from abroad in every year since 1983; and (b) that there tends to be a net inflow at the professional level, indicating a net gain in quality. This conforms with the finding of the 1987 Royal Society study of the brain drain, that there was a broad balance between the outflows and inflows of scientists from Britain.
    The Government accept that the Universities Statistical Record data may not provide a complete picture. This is why I asked the CVCP last year to conduct a review. In the meantime, however, I stressed that, in determining public policy it is better to make use of such information as is available rather than simply to ignore it.
    Not all British post-doctoral scientists can, or should, expect to find jobs in British higher education. At least a third of those whose council-funded research studentships ended in 1988 proceeded to work in British industry and public service—and more should do so. Meanwhile, the proportion of "Post Docs" going abroad has fallen from 35 per cent. in 1963 to 12 per cent. in 1988. Recent data from the United States National Science Foundation show that, while the numbers of scientists immigrating into the United States from abroad increased by 19 per cent. between 1984 and 1987, the numbers from the United Kingdom decreased by 6 per cent. during that period.
    The USR statistics do not support recent suggestions that there is an "internal" brain drain from the universities into other employment within Britain. They indicate that, in each year since 1983, there was a net inflow of university staff from industry/commerce and public service.
    Finally, I suggested to BSA that they should reflect on the implications of their statements for the image and self-image of British science. International comparisons of scientific publications suggest that Britain remains second only to the United States in world science—a position it has maintained throughout the 1980s. I suggested that there is something profoundly wrong with a style of lobbying for public expenditure that leads self-appointed spokesmen for British science to run down their country's scientific achievements and prospects.