Research councils are wasting up to a quarter of the money they spend on equipment, according to the public spending watchdog.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council could save Pounds 9.5 million of the Pounds 38 million it spends each year on equipment if universities better estimated costs and improved co-ordination of purchases, the National Audit Office found.
"It is healthy that the research community is made aware of the advantages of careful and consistent procurement methods," said Richard Brooks, chief executive of the EPSRC. "It may be that in the euphoria that accompanies receiving a grant, people are less careful about procurement."
The cost of research equipment needed for specific EPSRC projects is typically underestimated by 16 per cent, the NAO found. Generally, universities use the surplus cash to buy extra equipment for the project. If, however, institutions estimated costs more accurately, some Pounds 6 million could be released for research projects that had been approved by the EPSRC.
A further Pounds 2.7 million could be saved if universities negotiated bulk discounts on equipment for different projects, and another Pounds 800,000 if they collaborated on these negotiations, says the NAO.
"In one case. the EPSRC approved funding for three similar-specification electron microscopes by three universities in a three-month period," the report states. "The Higher Education Funding Council for England funded another through the Joint Research Equipment Initiative. No attempt was made by the EPSRC or the universities to co-ordinate these purchases."
Buying the equipment should be left to trained staff, says the NAO.
"Little recourse is made to the specialist skills that universities' purchasing co-ordinators can bring to the procurement of the equipment," the report notes.