Cash dose could aid lab health

July 25, 1997

THE CREATION of an arts and humanities research council, a Pounds 500-million loan scheme for buying laboratory equipment and an extra Pounds 110 million for research councils are among Dearing's recommendations for university research.

Dearing's report says the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Rec 29) should replace the British Council's humanities research board. To avoid bureaucracy, the new council should be attached to an existing council. Half the estimated Pounds 50 million a year funding for the AHRC can be met by existing allocations to the HRB, meaning that Pounds 25 million in additional funds will be required.

Improving the health of university laboratories is a key theme of the report. Estimates of the "funding gap" between research undertaken and the infrastructure needed to support it range from Pounds 137 million and Pounds 720 million.

Research councils could raise their funding of indirect project costs from 45 per cent to 60 per cent or higher if institutions can justify it (Rec 34). This will mean that the research councils have to find an extra Pounds 110 million. Ideally Dearing wants this sum to be met through extra Government cash.

Alternatives include reducing the volume of research funded but Dearing says this would not be in the country's long-term interest. Another solution is to transfer money from funding councils to research councils. But this has been rejected on the basis that the dual-support system gives flexibility in managing research.

Dearing is "convinced" that further support for laboratory infrastructure could be made available through the creation of a Pounds 500 million scheme providing loans for the purchase of equipment (Rec 34). The fund would be set up and managed jointly by Government, research councils, funding bodies, industry and charities and would support "departments and institutions with a track record of conducting top quality research".

Dearing also recommends taking research money from departments that got below a 3b in the research assessment exercise, to allow them to concentrate on teaching (see page 4).

To provide more focus for university-industry research, Dearing recommends (Rec 34) the creation of an umbrella scheme for all national initiatives designed to encourage applied research. The Industrial Partnership Development Fund would be run jointly by the Department of Trade and Industry, the Welsh Office and Scottish Office. It would operate on a matching funds basis, with the IPDF meeting universities' share of the cost. Some or all of the DTI's current spend of around Pounds 50 million on university-industry projects could be rolled into the IPD as would the Teaching Company Schemes and Link. Dearing believes that over time the funds from IPDF could grow to about Pounds 100 million per annum.

A widespread view in evidence to Dearing was that the RAE's focus on subjects discouraged interdisciplinary research. The funding bodies and research councils should commission a study to evaluate interdisciplinary research funding, including incentives and disincentives (Rec 32). Dearing is also concerned that oversight of research policy and funding does not appear to lie clearly with any single body and says a new independent and private advisory body is needed to take on this task (Rec 35).

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