If anyone harboured any doubts about the pressing need for the full economic costing of university research, just a glance at the figures provided to vice-chancellors earlier this month by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for UK universities should be enough to convince them. Last year, universities failed to recover the true costs of their activities by a staggering £1.4 billion, with publicly funded research by far the biggest component. And it wasn't much better the year before, when the shortfall was some £1.3 billion.
Since 2002, when the Government first promised universities extra cash in return for an improvement in the management of their budgets with the aim of recovering the full economic costs of research, remarkable progress has been made towards sustainability. Most in the science community would agree with Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, when he says that "British universities are in a very different place from where they were a decade ago." And many people should be commended for the efforts they have made in helping to move universities forward, not least Lord Sainsbury, the former Science Minister.
But, it has to be said, the place universities are in now is very different from the one promised by Lord Sainsbury and the Government in the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014. In this, the Government claimed it would effectively pay the total FEC by 2010. The intention was clear: to move research councils to paying "close to 100 per cent of the full economic costs of projects by the beginning of the next decade, taking full account of capital cost streams".
Yet the consensus from the Government after last year's Comprehensive Spending Review seems to be that a figure of 90 per cent is sufficient (80 per cent from the research councils and 10 per cent from the capital stream) - 10 per cent short of what was promised. This is not good enough. The Government has reneged on its promise, and it should be held to account. It now has a duty to tell science exactly what its vision is for FEC beyond 2010.
The extra money that the research councils are paying towards FEC is proving a headache for administrators, who sometimes struggle to prise it from academics who consider it theirs alone. But universities must tackle head on the kind of thinking from researchers that says, "as long as my research is sustainable, to hell with the rest of it". Researchers must be made to understand that they are not an island. For their department to function properly, there must be investment in support services such as human resources. Who else would advertise their vacant posts? Who would ensure fair and open recruitment? These are research costs.
There has been much bickering from all parties on the road to sustainability, and it is right and proper that there should be a review of the FEC agenda. But the decision that it should be led by the research councils (and there is no doubt that they are in the driving seat even though others such as Universities UK and the funding councils are involved) is questionable. They are not neutral players. Like everyone else, they have a vested interest in the outcome and this needs to be made clear.
But in the quest for sustainability, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. We cannot allow bickering to detract from the task in hand. The battle to move towards full economic costing has been hard won, and we must now ensure that we stay focused and keep the process on track. British science deserves nothing less.