Call for single science body

July 18, 2003

The science research councils should be dissolved and replaced with a national science foundation, leading science figures said this week.

The Royal Society of Chemistry, whose chief executive writes in today's THES, has presented a paper to the Commons science and technology committee arguing that dividing research funding between seven specialist councils runs counter to the interdisciplinary nature of the science base.

The society calls for a removal of these "artificial barriers". It wants the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council to merge and form an umbrella organisation like America's National Science Foundation.

This would operate alongside the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Sir Harry Kroto, president of the RSC, said: "It is utterly ridiculous in the modern atomic and molecular age that the biological and physical sciences remain separated. I can see no advantage whatsoever in the current model, which can only work to the detriment of UK science in general."

The paper proposes a "non-stop shop" for researchers, who it claims are vexed and frustrated by the different application processes, programme areas, vetting procedures and priorities across the research councils.

Members of the science and technology committee support the suggestions.

Committee chair Ian Gibson, said: "The research councils are unlikely to work together as they are all preserving their own little cultures. They react to individual problems and issues. There is no one speaking in a visionary way for UK science."

Pressure group Save British Science fears that creating a national science foundation would mean more bureaucracy, with committees focusing on the areas the councils cover now. Peter Cotgreave, director of SBS, said:

"However you organise things, there will always be boundaries between different parts of the structure, and some people will always feel they fall between the cracks."

Nonetheless, the paper has fuelled criticism about the role of the Research Councils UK strategy group. Tajinder Panesor, policy officer at the Institute of Physics, said that more than a year after RCUK was set up, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about what it does.

RCUK has rejected the proposals. "We believe that the current research funding framework in the UK through the research councils delivers the necessary skills, infrastructure and processes to keep the UK at the forefront of technology, research and innovation," it said.

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