A Government decision to allow "all competent suppliers" to bid for research council funds now spent in universities has been criticised by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals as potentially biased against university researchers.
The change was announced this week in the Government response to last year's Cabinet Office efficiency scrutiny of 53 public sector research establishments. The Government says responsive-mode grants will remain open only to university researchers. But council funds to support strategic research for achieving specific objectives will be subject to competition from other bodies, which will be able to bid from the next grants round.
The report says that "all grants awarded will be on the same basis of direct and indirect costs as research council grants to university researchers". But the CVCP, while it welcomed the decision to open up research council grants to wider competition, questioned whether the new framework will ensure a "truly level playing field" between universities and other bodies seeking council funds.
The committee fears that the gradual erosion of infrastructure, particularly equipment, in universities over many years due to a lack of funds may leave them poorly placed to compete with other bodies, such as Government research establishments, charities and "non-profit making organisations" which are better equipped. Independent research firms will be particularly keen to take advantage of the new council funding framework.
David Melville, vice chancellor of Middlesex University and vice chairman of the CVCP said: "Infrastructure is a very important determining factor when it comes to attracting funds and proving to the funders that the work can be carried out." He said the move would "pull the rug out from beneath those institutions which have made a big effort to orientate themselves towards applied, strategic work". The CVCP said that in the long term and without additional funds, the changes will weaken the science base.