Booming subject outstrips funding

November 21, 2003

Biological sciences are booming in UK universities, but the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council warned this week that research funding might be unable to keep up.

According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of universities with undergraduate entrants in the field rose by 77 between 1994-95 and 2000-01 to 481.

This explosion has triggered a 20 per cent rise in research grant applications to the BBSRC in the past year alone, and the council is predicting that application numbers will continue to grow. This is placing a tremendous burden on its budget.

Concerns were raised about the situation at the BBSRC's strategy board meeting this month. Success rates for research bids are still buoyant, remaining around the recommended 30 per cent mark, but the council is unlikely to be able to sustain this.

David White, head of the BBSRC's science and technology group, told The THES : "We've had an increase in funding of 10 per cent per annum from the previous spending review, but we are not expecting much from the next round. At best, we are expecting level funding in real terms."

Professor White said the volume of applications was placing a real strain on the research community, which had to peer review each proposal, as well as on the council itself. "It is clearly not advantageous to anyone for the applications to jump too far above what we can fund. It is highly inefficient," he added. "But there is an expectancy that the number will keep increasing."

The council will discuss ways of dealing with the problem over the next few weeks. Possible solutions include pumping a greater proportion of the overall budget into research-grant funding, which Professor White said was unlikely to be seen as an attractive option, or educating universities to restrict their applications.

Alan Malcolm, chief executive of the Institute of Biology, said the field was continuing to expand, with once-minor specialities such as genetics becoming major activities in their own right. "Sequencing DNA, which used to take months, now takes hours. The speeding-up of data means we can ask and answer questions we have never been able to tackle before."

But he warned: "There is no question that the growth in bioscience poses a problem. It is moving far faster than the growth in funding."

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