Charitable connections keep our science strong

October 17, 2003

Proposals to remove charity income from funding formulas bode ill for vital research, says Mark Walport

This time last year charities were feeling rather upbeat about the future funding of university biomedical research. Not only did science get a very favourable deal in last year's spending review, but the government's science strategy, Investing in Innovation, also explicitly recognised charities as primary funders of research of public benefit, and charity-backed research was acknowledged as eligible for support by the funding councils. One year on and it appears the government and the funding councils may be backtracking.

Consultations on the future of the dual-support system aim to bring sustainability to university research funding through full economic cost accounting. But there is a danger that the proposed reforms may ultimately reduce the volume of first-rate UK research.

Perhaps most worrying for charities is that the Higher Education Funding Council for England proposes removing charity income as a factor in its research funding allocation formula. This will reduce the support received by many of the UK's most research-intensive universities and move funds away from biomedical sciences. It contradicts the government's recognition of charitable research. Moreover, Hefce's review does not make clear the extent to which its research support funding will sustain charity-funded research.

It is the fundamental belief of the Wellcome Trust that we fund university research in partnership with the government. We meet the full direct costs of the work - the costs of reagents and equipment, and the salaries of technical staff and many principal investigators.

But we expect research environments - laboratories, libraries, personnel departments and so on - to be provided by the government, through funding councils. That is not to say that charities should not contribute to indirect costs. We have been enormous contributors to infrastructure, paying for buildings, staff and equipment.

Furthermore, the trust has provided world infrastructure by funding the sequencing of 32 per cent of the human genome and many important pathogenic micro-organisms; and we continue to be the main supporter of Ensembl, one of the major genome databases worldwide. In the US, the equivalent funding is provided by the government.

Next year, the trust will spend more than Pounds 400 million, mostly to support research in UK universities. But charities should be able to decide the nature of their contributions to infrastructure to best further their missions.

Instead of removing the charity factor from funding-council allocations, we should explore ways to strengthen the partnership. One way would be for funding councils to continue identifying sums that could be awarded to universities on a formulaic basis, depending on their success in attracting charitable backing. To avoid micromanagement and unpredictable variation in income, this could be awarded in blocks related to a rolling average of charity income over several years. Vice-chancellors should have the flexibility to apply this money as they see fit to allow strategic development.

It might be argued that a simple formulaic award would allow charities too much say in shaping universities' research agenda and might result in charitable funding growing in an uncontrolled fashion. Both dangers can be easily avoided. First, there could be a mechanism to accredit those charities that provide awards for high-quality scientific research. This could be achieved by using the Funders' Forum, which brings together the main players in funding UK research. Second, there could be an agreement to cap the volume of charitable funds spent in the university sector. A scheme such as this would directly reward success in universities with more flexibility than a quinquennial research assessment exercise.

The fundamental problem is that the amount of infrastructure support available to universities is insufficient to support current volumes of research. If no new money is found, there will be a fall in the overall amount of first-class research. We need to know if the government anticipates this and, if so, what strategy it has for those research areas that may be severely affected and the knock-on effects for the economy and government policy.

Funding councils are between a rock and a hard place. They do not have enough money to sustain a world-class science base. Such sustainability will be reached only through consistent investment from government in partnership with charities. The award of the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine to British scientists in each of the past three years illustrates the strength of the UK biosciences. But we cannot be complacent - creative talent requires money.

Mark Walport is director of the Wellcome Trust.

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