Prime Minister visits Imperial College London, underlines commitment to British science funding

March 07, 2005

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt made a visit to Imperial College London today following the announcement of a £10 billion investment in UK science.

The PM and Trade and Industry Secretary visited the laboratory of Professor Donna Blackmond, who carries out research within the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Imperial. Her work on understanding how chemical reactions can be improved by catalysts is essential to help industry develop cost-effective new medicines for diseases such as cancer, heart disease and AIDS.

The government funding, which will be rolled out over the next three years, is aimed at closing the research gap with the USA. It will be focused particularly on biotechnology, climate change science and promoting collaboration between universities and industry to encourage commercialisation of research. Today's announcement details the new allocations from the science budget agreed in the 2004 Spending Review.

Welcoming the announcement, Sir Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College London, said: "I am delighted that the Government is focusing money in ways which will really help move science forward. For too long, the UK has underinvested in science while our society has become more and more dependent on technology. Today's announcement is a major step forward in rectifying this serious failing.

"It is particularly encouraging that the Government is not only injecting significant funds into supporting the UK's science base but is also recognising that this support needs to be long-term."

Imperial was ranked 5th in Europe and 14th in the World in the recent Times Higher Education Supplement world university rankings, and is consistently ranked in the top three of all UK university league tables. Its Department of Chemistry is top rated for research (5*) and maintains stable undergraduate numbers (312 in 2003-04) at a time of decreasing interest in chemistry among young people. The department has been home to five Nobel Laureates.

Professor Blackmond's work is recognised for both its fundamental value and its application to the needs of the pharmaceutical industry which contributes valuable funding to the work.

Sir Richard said: "The interdisciplinary nature of Professor Blackmond's research exemplifies a strength of research at centres of excellence such as Imperial - breaking down the barriers between subjects and disciplines, and bringing people from different areas together to work on big problems. Only a few universities have the critical mass of the brightest people brought together to work like this."

Professor Blackmond's lab has recently been refurbished with money from the government's Science Research Investment Fund, and in January she launched a three year study funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (see Notes to Editors).

Today's visit is Tony Blair's first to Imperial's South Kensington campus and his second to the College while serving as Prime Minister. In 2002 he opened the Wolfson and Weston Research Centre for Family Health, housing the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, on the Hammersmith campus in west London.
-end-
Photographs of the visit are available.

Notes to editors:

1. Funding allocations announced today include: Full details of the 2004 Spending Review are at: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/spending_review/spend_sr04/associated_documents/spending_sr04_science.cfm

2. Imperial recently received £62.8 funding in the 2004-2006 Science Research Investment Fund, a joint initiative by the Office of Science and Technology and the Department for Education and Skills to support infrastructure for science research. The £62.8 million award will be used to support a range of key projects from the refurbishment of basic working space to the establishment of large scale interdisciplinary research programmes.

3. About Professor Donna Blackmond

Prof Blackmond, a US citizen, holds the College's Chair in Catalysis. She joined Imperial in January 2004, from the University of Hull. Professor Blackmond has previously worked at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Harvard University, Merck and Co, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Hers is a joint appointment between the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Imperial. She works on understanding how chemical reactions can be improved using catalysts, with particular application of her work to the pharmaceutical industry.

Following work funded by an EPSRC grant, she published findings in June 2004 which explained how key molecules in the biological world might have come to be predominately left or right handed. (The building blocks such as amino acids and sugars are distinctively left or right handed - possessing a quality known as chirality - scientists have been puzzling to answer how and why.)

Using simple organic molecules, her research team demonstrated that an amino acid itself can amplify the concentration of one particular chiral form of reaction product. Importantly, the experiment works in similar conditions to those expected around pre-biotic life and displays all the signs to suggest it may be a model for how biological homochirality evolved.

In January 2005 she received a £292,000 grant from EPSRC to further develop this work, which may lead towards the design of more efficient organocatalysts.

She was also the Principal Investigator on a large (£1.5 million) Foresight/LINK/DTI/EPSRC grant with a consortium of pharma companies entitled "From Micrograms to Multikilos" (dated 30 April 2001 to 29 January 2005). The goal was to help develop protocols for streamlining pharmaceutical process research.

Professor Blackmond receives significant research funding from AstraZeneca, for whom she also regularly consults. Her collaborations with industry include Pfizer, Merck, Mitsubishi and Syngenta.

Professor Blackmond's lab has recently been refurbished to a high standard using SRIF funding.

4. About the Department of Chemistry at Imperial

Maintains undergraduate intake numbers at a time of decreasing interest in chemistry among young people: In 2003-04 there were 312 chemistry undergraduate students. This figure has remained stable over the past five years.

Rated 'excellent' for teaching in the most recent inspection, and received the top rating of 5* in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise.

By working in multidisciplinary teams in important and developing areas of science the Department of Chemistry is focusing on: The department is already at the centre of a wide range of multidisciplinary research initiatives: The department has been home to five Nobel laureates: Sir Walter Haworth (1937), Sir Cyril Hinshelwood (1956), Lord George Porter (1967), Sir Derek Barton (1969) and Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson (1973).

The Department of Chemistry at Imperial has made pioneering contributions to the practical application of chemistry. Created in 1845 as the Royal College of Chemistry, it was the first of the constituent colleges of Imperial and was founded with the aim of invigorating the British chemical industry.

5. About the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial

In 2003-04 there were 430 undergraduate students in the Department of Chemical Engineering, a number which has been increasing steadily over the past five years.

Received a Research Assessment Exercise rating of 5* in 2001 and was rated 22 out of 24 for teaching in the most recent inspection.

The department covers a broad spectrum of science and engineering relevant to the technology of the process industries. Research ranges from technological studies of the behaviour of processes and equipment to fundamental scientific study of the underlying physical and chemical phenomena, and to the development of techniques for planning, design and control of processes.

Research is divided into six programmes:

applied catalysis and reaction engineering
biological and separations engineering
energy conversion
materials engineering and technology
multiphase fluid systems
process systems engineering

Researchers within the department work with the chemicals, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and processing industries in a variety of collaborations and interactions. Much of the research is based on interdisciplinary collaborations with other Imperial departments, other universities and with industrial partners.

6. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated in the top three UK university institutions, Imperial College London is a world leading science-based university whose reputation for excellence in teaching and research attracts students (11,000) and staff (6,000) of the highest international quality.

Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and management and delivers practical solutions that enhance the quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture. Website: www.imperial.ac.uk

Imperial College London

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