Universities must adopt a less arrogant attitude to charitable research funding or risk losing it altogether, the Association of Medical Research Charities warned this week.
Members of the group, which includes major players such as the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK, spent £660 million on research in the UK in 2002-03. This far exceeds the £430 million spent on average each year by the Medical Research Council.
But Diana Garnham, the chief executive of the AMRC told The Times Higher that research charities were tired of being treated as a peripheral source of funding. She said some charities took the view that their strategic aims could be met just as well if they invested overseas.
She said: "Universities think we do fundraising for their research - we need to change that culture. Instead of seeing the benefits of charity research funding, all we hear from universities is that charities are a pain."
She expressed frustration that universities regarded charities as a funding pot for research projects only, ignoring the money they provided for new research positions, equipment, buildings and dedicated research units.
Research overheads remain a bone of contention. Charities pay the direct costs of research, including salaries, but are unwilling to invest more generally in university infrastructure. Many universities therefore see them as a costly stream of funding.
The AMRC is concerned that this negative message has been reinforced by the Office of Science and Technology's plans to reform the dual-support system.
Under the OST's proposals, institutions will have to calculate the full economic costs of each piece of research and then negotiate with the funder.
There is concern among AMRC members that this will put pressure on academics to seek funding only from sources willing to contribute more to their costs, such as the research councils.
But Ms Garnham said that to pay more for the same university research, charities would have to cut either the volume of research or their funding for clinical care in hospitals.
Angela Galpine, director of science funding at Cancer Research UK, said:
"We will have to see how the situation changes. But at present it is difficult to see how it would be a good use of charitable funding to pay overheads."