BRITAIN should spend more on research and treat it as a long-term investment, says higher education minister Baroness Blackstone, writes Julia Hinde.
The minister, who last year felt the wrath of scientists by suggesting that the proportion of science students would inevitably decline, told last week's House of Commons science and technology committee that improving outdated equipment in university laboratories was a high priority for government. She said if Britain failed to invest more in research, there would be fewer people working at the cutting edge, which in turn would affect the country economically. But she stopped short of promising any new money.
On the subject of dual support, she said the Department for Education and Employment felt the current system, where university research is jointly supported by the funding and research councils, was the most sensible, and that she would fight to maintain it. A transfer of funds to the research councils, she said, would prevent universities both from helping young scientists get into research, and experienced researchers in the lulls between funded projects.
She said that trying to be too precise about the costs of projects could be wasteful: "We will end up with armies of people doing accounts."
Baroness Blackstone told the committee that there was overwhelming support for an arts and humanities research council (AHRC) as proposed by Sir Ron Dearing. But she said there was a risk that such a council, awarding money through peer review across many areas, would incur huge administrative costs. She said discussions were taking place with the Higher Education Funding Council for England for the council to house the AHRC. Or it could go to the Office of Science and Technology with the other research councils, although it might be a "bit odd" having it there.
Turning to the research assessment exercise, now under review, Baroness Blackstone said she personally believed it should continue along fairly similar lines, adding that she would like to see departments scoring 3b continue to be supported. She added: "I have the personal view that if you want to be rated as a top department all your potentially research-active staff should take part."