LONDON ¿ The U.K. science minister, Lord Sainsbury, will lead a team of experts on a fact-finding mission to examine the growth of biotechnology clusters and how the U.K. can maintain its lead in Europe. This comes as Germany is poised to overtake the U.K. in terms of the number of biotechnology companies, according to Ernst and Young¿s sixth report on European Life Sciences, published last week.

Encouraged by the BioRegio initiative, designed to spur the industry¿s growth, the number of companies in Germany has more than doubled in the past two years to 220. The U.K. has 270 companies.

Sainsbury will be joined by four professors and the biotechnology entrepreneur Chris Evans, in a tour of clusters in the U.K., including Cambridge, Oxford, Guildford and central Scotland, and Boston and Seattle in the U.S. The team will report back to Stephen Byers, secretary of state for industry, by the end of June.

Sainsbury said Britain¿s biotechnology industry ¿is second only to that of the U.S., and we must work hard to make sure that we stay ahead of rivals.¿

The investigation will be looking at clusters to identify factors that make them successful. ¿We will be looking for any barriers to their further development and considering what needs to be done by government and by others to ensure that biotechnology clusters in the U.K. continue to flourish,¿ Sainsbury said.¿

Last November, the U.K. government sent a similar expert mission to Germany to study the development of the biotechnology industry. It concluded that, when the objective was set out three years ago of making Germany the ¿number one¿ in Europe by 2000, the move ¿seemed more like an act of political bravado than a realizable objective.¿ But it was backed by an effective strategy and, ¿three years on, the claim seems a good deal more plausible . . . It is clear that Germany is now acquiring a highly diversified domestic biotechnology industry which is a force to be reckoned with.¿ n