The age of scientific discovery is over

This month, scientists based in Britain have won two Nobel Prizes — but the celebrations have been m

The message pages of the Nobel Prize website made for moving reading after the announcement that Robert Edwards, the British pioneer of in vitro fertilisation, had won this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. "Congratulations. You have helped to put smiles on a lot of faces," said Mkpouto of Nigeria. "Congrats, dear doctor. Thanks for my beautiful niece. God bless you!" said Nathalí Romero Aleán of Colombia. Edwards's work has changed lives around the world.

On 5 October, a day after Edwards's prize was announced, two scientists based in Britain won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Andre Geim and Konstantin "Kostya" Novoselov, Russian-trained physicists, took up positions at the University of Manchester nine years ago. It sounds like cause for a great British celebration, but the jubilation has been muted.

“Geim and Novoselov could be the last of their kind," warns Imran Khan, head of the Campaign for Science and Engineering - formerly known as Save British Science. Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, is similarly gloomy. "That these two people are here is a testament to the strength of our university system," he says. "But people thinking about coming to the UK now might not make the same decision."

The sense of pessimism among those working in British scientific research is profound. Research budgets will soon be cut by levels that could prove disastrous. The Royal Society has warned that a severe enough cut, coupled with proposed immigration caps that would keep talented foreign scientists from working in the UK, could mean it's "game over" for science in this country. British science is ranked second in the world, behind the United States, but that won't last long if the government does not change its plans. "There aren't many arenas where the UK can say convincingly that it's number two in the world," Rees says. "Let's not jeopardise one of them."

It was the robustness of British science that attracted the Manchester physicists, who are both supported by the Royal Society. Their prize is for the work they have conducted in isolating and researching the properties of a novel form of carbon called graphene, a material that could revolutionise the electronics industry. The newspapers have made much of the playfulness of Geim's research (he won a satirical "Ig Nobel" prize in 2000 for levitating frogs with magnets and co-authored a paper with his pet hamster). But Geim and Novoselov are extremely smart and resourceful experts in electronics and their prize-winning breakthrough came as a result of a purposeful search for materials with unexploited electronic properties.

Eureka moment

In graphene, carbon is laid out in a hexagonal pattern to create a thin sheet of atoms, like microscopic chicken wire. Initially, the researchers were looking to create thin-film carbon electronics by filing down a block of graphite. That approach failed. Then, in 2004, they saw a colleague cleaning a graphite block by attaching Scotch tape to the graphite and peeling it away. Geim and Novoselov realised this might peel away a thin layer of carbon. They created a pencil scrawl, laid tape over it and pulled. Under an electron microscope, they saw that the tape held a sheet of graphene.

Their breakthrough is already changing the electronics industry. Graphene has extraordinary properties. First, it conducts electricity with very little resistance. Thus, graphene-based electronics don't waste power as heat - so they don't require energy-guzzling cooling techniques - and operate using very little electricity. Graphene is also highly efficient at converting light into electricity and vice versa. Given these properties, it will be the material of choice for the next generation of solar panels, televisions and computer circuitry.

Geim's and Novoselov's prize came quickly because progress in the field is so fast and the Nobel Committee didn't want their contribution to be overshadowed by developments. The same cannot be said of Edwards's prize. The reason for the 30-year delay is worth noting.

“The Nobel is a vindication. It is recognition for IVF research as good medical science," says Edwards's former colleague Simon Fishel, who runs the Care Fertility clinics. In his view, the medical establishment has distanced itself from IVF research for three decades - and Britain is now paying the price.

In the run-up to the birth of Louise Brown, the world's first IVF baby, Edwards and his collaborator Patrick Steptoe were refused funding by the Medical Research Council. Documents made public this year show that among the factors which influenced the decision were a desire to limit population and concerns over safety. Edwards and Steptoe found funding elsewhere and pressed on. The result was a birth that changed the fertility landscape - but not enough for IVF researchers to be accepted as bona fide scientists. The expense and difficulty of IVF treatment caused some scientists to label it a con. That stigma is slowly being eroded as the number of IVF children grows.

“It's taken 30 years and four million children to realise it's not a con. It works and it's a routine medical practice," Fishel says.

Poor relations

Government funders remain cautious. But Fishel and his colleagues aren't too worried about the axe hanging over science funding; they don't get any public money anyway. They are still handcuffed by government regulation, however, because of which Britain's pre-eminence in the field has been squandered. Fishel warns: "It's good to have regulation, but we have become the poor cousins. Researchers in several areas of the world are rocketing ahead."

If the perfect-storm scenario - immigration caps and a funding vacuum - arises, British pre-eminence in other areas of science will suffer similar decline. UK investment in science has now sunk to the point where it is proportionately lower than in almost every other developed country. France, Germany, Singapore, China and the US are all increasing their funding and trying to entice foreign scientists. "If it's looking bright there, and gloomy here, the most talented people will go," Rees says. Novoselov has already warned that researchers such as he and Geim have many options.

The knock-on effects are likely to be horrendous. A 2007 government report showed that science-based industries cluster around centres of academic excellence. What's more, the best researchers pull in the best students. "The Nobel laureates are incredibly important role models - when you're a young scientist, you look to these people as heroes," says Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London. But even the presence of Nobel winners can't overcome a lack of funds. "There's been a very large axe over all of us for years," Rohn says. "More and more of my colleagues are bailing out."

Michael Brooks is the New Statesman's science correspondent and author of "13 Things That Don't Make Sense: the Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Times" (Profile Books, £8.99)

The fightback has begun

Facing the dual threat of cuts and an immigration cap, Britain's scientists are mobilising for action. The Science Is Vital campaign, started by Jennifer Rohn at University College London, wants the government to recognise the importance of science and not reduce funding. Boosted by support from the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Rohn and her organising committee (which includes the former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris) are driving a concerted programme of lobbying, letter-writing and protesting in an attempt to bring about a change in government policy.

So far, the petition has over 26,000 signatories, drawn mainly from science and academia, though not exclusively - the comedians Dara Ó Briain and Robin Ince and the Labour MPs Andrew Smith and Mark Lazarowicz have also added their names to the list.

“We have everyone from musicians to soldiers and housewives recognising the importance of maintaining a strong science base in this country," Rohn says.

Eight Nobel laureates - including this year's physics prizewinners Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov - have been petitioning the government on the immigration cap, arguing that it is not just Britain's institutions that have attracted global talent, but that our "inclusive culture" has also made a difference.
Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?