Leader comment: How do we tackle brain drain?

The winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics (L-R) David J Thouless, F Duncan M Haldane and J Michael Kosterlitz, were all born in Britain, but now all work in the US. Picture: Getty Images
The winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics (L-R) David J Thouless, F Duncan M Haldane and J Michael Kosterlitz, were all born in Britain, but now all work in the US. Picture: Getty Images
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If there are immediate lessons to be learned from three British-born scientists winning the Nobel Prize in physics, they’re probably not about matter.

Announcing their decision yesterday, the Nobel Committee said the work of David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz had “opened the door on an unknown world” of materials which conduct electricity with no loss of resistance.

It’s safe to say that that world will probably remain “unknown” for the vast majority of us, but the award of the prize again highlights a more straightforward issue which UK universities have nevertheless struggled to come to terms with.

Despite being born in the UK – Professor Thouless in Bearsden and Professor Kosterlitz in Aberdeen – all three of the academics are now based at institutions in the United States. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the men’s work in the 1970s and 80s had improved theoretical understanding of matter’s mysteries.

But while we should congratulate the trio, we must also question why the brightests and best invariably leave British universities to continue their work across the Atlantic.

This “brain drain” has been a long-standing problem which shows no sign of abating, despite Oxford University last month coming top of the Times Higher Education world university rankings – a first for a UK university.

The UK, and more specifically Scotland, has some of the best universities in the world.

It is too simplistic to say the issue is one of money, but American institutions receive levels of funding through fees their British counterparts could only dream of.