London - a world science hub

"A science park with a stock exchange in the middle."

This neat description of London from Dr Tony Jones, director of biotechnology and healthcare at London First (set up to promote London businesses) sums up the close and fertile relationship between science and finance in the UK capital.

In the early 21st century, London has risen dramatically to the fore as a global financial centre, competing on equal terms with New York and Tokyo, making it the largest in Europe. Yet less well known is London's pre-eminence in the scientific world.

Some of the greatest and most pioneering scientists in history lived and worked in the city, including Newton, Boyle, Faraday, Davy and Darwin, followed more recently by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, for example, who played a crucial role in cracking the code of DNA.

Franklin and Wilkins were working at King's College, part of the University of London, and received a Nobel Prize for their efforts in 1953. This award is just one of eight Nobel prizes that King's has received, while London as a whole has picked up more Nobel Prizes in physiology and medicine than any city in the world outside New York and Boston.

The city plays host to more than 50 universities and centres of higher education, the greatest concentration of academic institutions in Europe. There are an estimated 10,000 post-doctoral workers, making up one-fifth of the UK's full-time research staff.

Recent growth in London's scientific research and manufacturing base has been phenomenal. In biotechnology, for example, the number of companies operating in the capital has doubled to more than 100 in the past seven years, employing over 6,000 people. The life science industry by itself contributed around #6 billion to the annual GDP of the city, with multinationals such as AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline headquartered here.

London's governing bodies have nurtured and encouraged the world's foremost scientific companies and academics to make the city their home. For example, the London Development Agency and London First set up the London Biotechnology Network in 2000 to develop the sector. In the field of biotechnology alone, London has 1,300 researchers and five medical schools on 15 hospital sites. The Biotechnology Network now enables collaboration between more than 800 organisations, providing a forum for networking, aiding investment and funding, and showcasing London biotech around the world. As Damian Lynch, LDA's senior life sciences manager explains, the LDA focused on life sciences "because of its strong base, its high added value, and increasingly global nature."

This 'global nature', such a distinct feature of London, with its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural make-up and openness to new ideas, has proved highly attractive to undergraduates and postgraduates from around the world, particularly in scientific studies. At King's College, for example, around 4,000 students are from overseas, 20 per cent of the total student population, coming from more than 130 different countries.

Facilities at the college are already among the best in the UK, with a further #500 million currently being invested in new laboratories, college and student accommodation. "We are undergoing a huge refurbishment of the campus," says Chris Coe at King's. "We have the largest centre for healthcare education in Europe and have a truly international student body."

Besides the college's role in understanding DNA, researchers at King's contributed to the development of telegraphy, radar, mobile phone technology and even radio. "We have played a major role in many of the scientific advances that shape modern life," says Coe. In total, King's owns five campuses in central London and is home to five Medical Research Council centres: "That is more than any other university," he notes. Today's cutting edge work focuses on areas such as stem cell research, issues in allergies, autism, nutrition and cancer, each of them pressing concerns in global healthcare.

Each of the main London universities have 'technology transfer' offices, where developments in (for example) stem cell technology can be presented to potential financial backers including venture capital investors, allowing them to give early-stage funding to scientific developments which may prove to be highly influential and lucrative. Companies such as Ark Therapeutics grew out of the University College London Business (UCLB) unit. It is now listed on the London Stock Exchange. According to the London Biotechnology Network, there are more biotechnology venture capital groups in London than in the next 10 largest European cities put together.

"What is unusual about UCLB is that students own their own intellectual property [IP]," says Anne Lane, executive director at UCLB. "We have a very inclusive policy and students can be well rewarded once we have exploited IP." Business managers work closely with students and researchers in order to assist in commercialising research. "This is very useful if a graduate wants to go into industry," Lane remarks. Another UCLB project was successfully integrated into the UK's National Health Service (NHS) IT programme. The NHS concentrates a large proportion of its resources in the capital, conducting 70 per cent of its research here. The city is the undisputed centre of European medical research, hosting an estimated 60 per cent of the continent's clinical trials.

UCLB collaborates with a wide range of research organisations in London, including the institutes of child health, neurology, ophthalmology. "We exploit any IP that comes out of these institutions," says Lane. "We also have very good relations with our counterpart in the public sector, NHS Innovations."

As a result, science students in London are not only at the centre of a world-renowned city of academic excellence, but close to the heart of commercial innovation and progress, opening up the possibility of contact and collaboration with many of the largest and most forward-thinking scientific-based companies in the world. Start-up companies have been spun out of the technology transfer units such as Imperial Innovations, King's College Business Ltd, Queen Mary's College and UCLB among others. Most recently, Imperial College launched a #7 million BioIncubator facility, with 12 wet laboratories, 16 private offices and a suite of meeting rooms. The facility can host up to 15 start-up companies, who receive commercial advice and mentoring.

London's geographical and economic position in the world has proved to be a massive asset: it is clearly viewed as a pivotal point between the US and Europe, with the advantages of the English language, a shared (if slightly different) culture and long-standing and robust trade links with America, along with membership of the European Union. Scientifically, many of the biggest advances made in the States have had contributions from UK scientists (two UK-born researchers, Oliver Smithies and Martin Evans, were awarded this year's Nobel Prize for medicine, along with American Mario Capecci). Links with eminent scientific establishments in Asia, Australia and elsewhere are equally strong.

Besides the main universities with their centres of scientific excellence, there are a vast number of more specialised teaching and research institutions. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has a long history of pioneering research, the Institute for Cancer Research has made several significant breakthroughs, and the Institute of Pharmacy collaborates closely with the many multinational pharmaceutical companies present in the city.

Having such a concentration of academic research and industry in London has acted as a magnet for smaller scientific-based companies from around the world. As one Finnish research company business development director puts it: "Most of the big pharma companies are close by and clients want to see you in person. It is easier for us and them to meet in London for a couple of hours than have them come to Finland."

Transport links by road, rail and (most importantly) air are better in London than almost anywhere else on earth, meaning that meetings are easier to set up and travel times are shorter and simpler between destinations than most other cities can boast. And while Oxford and Cambridge both have major scientific research clusters, these cities are each little more than an hour away from London, sitting almost in between them.

The resources available to support scientific research in London are phenomenal. The Wellcome Trust, for example, is the world's second-largest medical research charity, making millions of pounds available each year. The government-funded Medical Research Council also has a huge annual budget to fund scientific research.

As if these formal sources of support were not enough, Londoners - whether science students, researchers or simply curious members of the public - have access to an unequalled array of scientific meetings, lectures and conferences throughout the year, held by the 30 museums dedicated to science and medicine, by organisations such as the Royal Institution, the Wellcome Trust or the London Technology Network. There are typically more than 100 scientific events taking place in London each month.

And then, even if you ignore the wealth of scientific research, the vast resources of the financial sector and the concentration of cutting-edge industrial giants, "London is simply one of the best cities in the world," as UCLB executive director Anne Lane puts it.

Figuring out reasons to study in London? It's not rocket science.