A Birmingham graduate who won the Nobel Prize for his ground-breaking research into cancer has expressed concern for the future of science funding while on a return trip to the city.
Sir Paul Nurse, president of The Rockefeller University in New York, said he was also concerned about the lack of investment in physics, maths and chemistry in the UK.
Last week, the Government announced it was slashing university teaching budgets by £215 million in 2010/11 and although funding for research would be maintained in line with inflation at £1.6 billion, future grants will be concentrated on departments with higher quality ratings for their work – mainly the bigger, more prestigious universities.
The 61-year-old, who won the 2001 Medicine Prize for research which led to a better understanding of cancer, made his remarks after leading a class with 65 young scientists at Thinktank.
He said: “The Labour government has put quite a lot of money into research in the time it has been in power and as far as I’m concerned that’s a really good thing. There’s now a problem as there is with all public finance, particularly with universities. Obviously we’re all worried for the future for that reason.
“It would be such a pity if the advances and the funding we have seen in the last ten years or more would get eroded in coming years but I’m sort of optimistic whatever government is in power it will recognise the importance of funding.
“It is very important to have a strong base of research enterprise. They have publicly-funded enterprise in the United States, for example. It drives the rest of industry, improving health and making wealth but if you don’t have that it won’t happen. It is really important for our future.”
Sir Paul, who graduated from Birmingham University in 1970, said his main concern was for the physical sciences.
Earlier this month the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee heard warnings about the threat to the future of research and the risk of fewer scientists if plans go ahead to cut £600 million from the science and higher education budgets between 2011 and 2013.
“Although I’m a biologist and medical scientist, that receives funding from some charities too,” he said. “I worry about funding for physics, maths and chemistry. Physics particularly at the moment has real problems and I think we have to pay attention to that.
“All countries are suffering and, although I do think we could spend more money here and improve working conditions, I don’t think there will be a serious brain drain. Britain is very good at doing science.”
Unions have warned more than 15,000 university posts could be axed across the country as a result of cuts.
But university bosses said they would not know how they would be affected until details of the funding cuts for each university were announced next month.
The University of Warwick said it had already cut budgets by five per cent, around £15 million, over the past year. This had been achieved by asking departments to suggest savings and the university had avoided closing any courses, said spokesman Peter Dunn.
But Mr Dunn warned that all universities could be forced to make further cuts in years to come.
He said: “As well as the £449 million that has already been announced, there is talk of cuts of £600 million over the next few years.
“And the parties are competing with each other over who will cut funding more. You don’t seem to hear anyone speaking up for the university sector. But in America, they are boosting university funding.
“What they seem to understand over there is that universities are one of the drivers of economic recovery.
“They improve skills and bring in students from overseas, who boost the economy. Universities are one of the few remaining jewels in the UK crown.”
Sir Paul Nurse, who was ranked as eighth in a national newspaper’s top ten list of the most influential Britons in America, spoke about his own work during his visit to Thinktank.
He said: “When you’re doing it you never actually think you’re doing anything that important because it always goes slowly,” he said.
“You never quite know what the impact will be. At the time you don’t quite realise the significance because you’re just getting on with it. I was working on this problem for which I got the Nobel Prize for about 15 years.
"But looking back on it you realise there are real advances and it’s just easier to see it.”