Industry Blasts Thatcher's College Cuts

LONDON—Leaders of Britain’s highly successful doing industry say that reduced government spending on academic research in chemistry, biology and medicine will limit industry’s ability to hire talented people and turn new ideas into profitable products.

By | January 25, 1988

LONDON—Leaders of Britain’s highly successful doing industry say that reduced government spending on academic research in chemistry, biology and medicine will limit industry’s ability to hire talented people and turn new ideas into profitable products.

Coming from one of Britain’s leading research-based manufacturing businesses, the attack may well influence the Thatcher government as it comes under increased pressure to boost funds for basic research in higher education.

The government has dismissed much of the criticism in recent years from university scientists as the product of narrow self-interest from the academic world. But the results of an informal survey of top executives in the $7 billion pharmaceutical industry, widely regarded as a success both in terms of technological innovation and global marketing, may strike a chord in a government with a strong pro-business philosophy. The drug business in Britain employs roughly 15,000 research and development staff, and spends more than $1 billion annually on research and development.

Britain's biggest drug company, Glaxo, hopes to increase its U.K.-based staff of 2,500 by 400 over the next five years. Richard Sykes, chief executive of Glaxo Group Research, is worried that the pressure on university research budgets in drug-related areas such as medicine and biochemistry will make it hard to find such people. “Too much pressure on universities will cause good people to drift away from science.

Sykes said that in his view "the situation in the universities is beginning to deteriorate” The time is overdue, he said, for the government to begin pumping new funds into cash-starved departments.

Peter Doyle, technical director of ICI Pharmaceuticals, Britain’s second-biggest drug company, said he looked to the universities for both trained people and new ideas. "I am worried on both counts,” he

Doyle said he recently received a request for cash from a university chemistry department—-the name of which he did not want to disclose—not for research but to buy a batch of laboratory chemicals. Doyle said that the position of this department was by no means unusual, and that its request high-lighted the problems facing university science.

ICI already provides universities with significant support for application-oriented research, he added, but does not believe it should give money to universities to help them tackle broad studies in basic science. “In industry we are the custodians of applied science, but we look to academic institutions for the enabling science where there is no specific linkage to a new product,” he said.

Doyle said he was concerned about government plans to categorize universities according to their research capabilities, with only a few schools being given the funds to do top-quality research. “This would have a thoroughly devastating effect on university researchers in general,” said Doyle. The government also came under criticism from Trevor Jones, research director of Wellcome, Britain’s third-biggest pharmaceutical company. As a result of current cutbacks, he said, “in 10 years the number of people coming through the system will be a problem for the industry”

Jones attacked the present effort to make universities do more industry-oriented work. He said such an approach would turn many institutions into “pot-boiling development centers” rather than sites for basic research.

Overseas-owned drug companies with research bases in Britain have also expressed concern. Tont Wind, U.K. medical director of SmithKline & French Laboratories in the United States, which employs 600 research and development staff in Britain, said it was doubtful that companies would raise their own budgets to compensate for the reduced amount of basic research being conducted at universities.

Industrial trade associations joined the attack on the Thatcher governtment's policy toward university research. John Griffin, director of the Association of British Pharmacuetical Industry, said he found the shortage of cash at universities “very Worrying.”

Marsh is on the staff of the Financial Times in London.

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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.3, January 25, 1988)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)

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