Leader: Cash boost may come at a price

March 11, 2005

This should be a red-letter week for university research. The science budget marked the beginning of the end of an era when accepting research council grants might cost an institution money. Instead, full economic costing means a rich new cash flow, arriving alongside substantial extra research cash from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. But already scientists are questioning whether ministerial largesse is all that it seems.

Without the most skilful management, sooner or later universities will face accusations from politicians, the Treasury and academics that an extra Pounds 600 million from the research councils by 2007-08, and a further £146 million next year from the funding council, has not added enough to British science.

One difficulty is that most of the new money will vanish on paying full economic costs and in extra stipends for PhD students. Take those away, and some special cash for purposes such as expanding clinical spending at the Medical Research Council, and there is not a lot left for expanding the amount of research performed. There will be no big increase in the number of academics getting research council money.

However, universities will now have a new flow of cash for indirect costs, which they will in principle be able to decide how to spend. At the very least, they will have some headroom because they will be left to find less of the cost of research than before. The higher indirect cost base set by the research councils will also provide an argument for charging other research funders more.

But although most of this money is spoken for before universities see it, there will be continuing pressure on them to use it to do more. The research councils will want to know that they are ensuring the health of academic research itself. This involves buildings and equipment, but it also means research training and other expensive intangibles. Both the research councils and the Treasury would rather see a smaller amount of top-quality research than a thin spread of indifferent work. The research councils and the funding council have voted with their feet by concentrating cash in top universities and departments, partly because they are sensitive to government doubts about whether poor research is any use economically. The present Government will fight the election partly on its role as the defender of science. So another Labour Administration would feel obliged to continue making the right noises about research. But without definite outcomes - in the shape of Nobel prizes, big industrial payoffs or major findings - the warm glow may not last.

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