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Osborne’s move

Has the chancellor fixed his £50m graphene competition?

If you are a materials scientist working in the UK, you have our deepest and heartfelt sympathies. Your main research-funding council is in the midst of a crude cost-cutting exercise. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announces £50 million to create a “hub” for commercialising the wonder material graphene. It’s a great opportunity. Except you wonder if there is any point in bidding. Why? Because the identity of the winning team is not exactly a secret.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board are to announce a competition so that the UK’s leading graphene research groups can bid to be part of the hub, even host it. Competition, however, is stretching the truth a little. There will be no hub without the University of Manchester either leading or hosting it—a fact acknowledged by at least one commentator.

Reacting to the announcement, Mark Miodownik of King’s College London said in a statement: “The UK is world class for materials science, its great to see the government recognising that. Perhaps the Conservatives could have their conference in London next year. There are plenty of potentially revolutionary materials being developed down here that could do with £50m investment, instead of what we have at the moment, which is a freeze in funding.”

Why Manchester? Because the £50m fund announced by Osborne at the Conservative party conference (being held in Manchester) is an undisguised move to buy the loyalty of two of the university’s scientists who won the 2010 Nobel physics prize for their work on graphene.

In his speech Osborne informed Conservative party members that Andre Geim and Konstantin Novolselov were being inundated with offers from places such as China and Russia, the country of their birth. Now, with £50m in the bag, the pair can happily return to their labs and delete all those messages inviting them to defect. Having said that, they should at least wait until a date is announced for the funds to materialise.

Osborne’s announcement makes perfect political sense and also addresses the perception that the UK mistreats its Nobel-winning talent. Harry Kroto (chemistry, 1996) shows no sign of returning from the US. Robert Edwards, who won the 2010 prize for his work on IVF, was famously denied a Medical Research Council grant. Even Paul Nurse (medicine, 2001), had to be offered two of the biggest jobs in UK science, including president of the Royal Society, before being prised from the Rockefeller University in New York where he was president.

But the announcement could have been better handled, and the lack of an open competition needs to be addressed. To say the least, for the party that has long based its whole industrial strategy on refusing to ‘pick winners’, this is pretty rum behaviour.

Osborne is unlikely to know the depth to which there is dissatisfaction with the EPSRC among physical scientists. The chancellor’s £50m will have prevented Geim and Novoselov from moving abroad. But in the process what must not happen is for tomorrow’s Nobel prizewinners to reach for their passports instead and begin looking for greener pastures elsewhere.