Talk of a new science brain-drain bubbled up again this morning, as science minister David Willetts was given a stark warning that the UK's world class status in stem cell research is under threat.
He was told that a funding gap, between research and commercialisation of stem cell therapies, is already being filled overseas. Leading edge research is at a critical stage in the UK, stem cell scientists said this morning, where it needs money to progress through clinical trials, and then on to commercialisation.
If the UK misses the opportunity successfully to translate and commercialise such therapies, scientists will start to be attracted to other countries, according to Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of the UK Stem Cell Foundation, newly-appointed head of the Royal Institution and former chairman of the pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline. "We will see British scientists move away if that happens, and crucial benefits that we could exploit will be exploited by other people," Sir Richard warned.
As if to back up his fears, professor Peter Coffey of the London Project to Cure Blindness, at University College London, said other countries are already looking "very attractive". He is working on a stem cell-based therapy for the eye condition age-related macular degeneration. He cited Californian investment of $3bn in stem cell science, and Singapore's announcement two weeks ago of a $10bn stem cell research fund - one area of which is the eye.
Professor Coffey clearly wants to resist the lure of overseas facilities and money. Speaking to journalists in London he said: "I'm loyal to where I was born. I was educated here, I have family here, I don't see why I should move out of the UK."
But if funding fell by a certain level, he feared having to make people unemployed. "The pressures are becoming huge," he said. And professor Coffey may be one of the luckier researchers. His research has backing from Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
The government's spending review is clearly at the back of everyone's mind. Asked how much of a cut would make a serious dent in his ability to carry on, professor Coffey said a 10% cut in research council money or in the infrastructure that supports stem cell science in this country would mean he'd be looking at laying people off.
Sir Richard said charitable money is available to be tapped - perhaps as much as £100m - but that most investors want the security of knowing that their money is matched by government investment.
Scientists say stem cell therapies could reach clinical practice sooner than some regulators had expected. Therapies to treat liver and heart conditions, and perhaps bone and joint disorders could come in under five years, depending on investment, though therapies for neuro-degenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Disease are likely to be 10 years out or more.
David Willetts said the government recognises that stem cells have enormous potential for health benefits, and for contributing to our wealth and economic growth, describing this as "an exciting area of scientific advance."
He announced the go-ahead for two competitions for companies seeking to bring new therapies to the marketplace. These are expected to be worth about £10m though, as with so much else, scientists will have to wait for the spending review before the exact amount available will be clear.