Dons fear DTI cash comes with strings attached

November 12, 1999

Fears that ministers will have a direct hand in setting the research agenda at Cambridge University were exacerbated with confirmation that the Pounds 68 million of government funds for Cambridge's partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be released only "against contracts for specific programmes of activity".

Chancellor Gordon Brown and science minister Lord Sainsbury launched the partnership between Cambridge and MIT this week, pledging new money from the Department of Trade and Industry, for research to "improve the UK's entrepreneurship, productivity and competitiveness".

But it appears that the money will come with strings attached, increasing fears that Cambridge is compromising its academic freedom. An official university "notice" of the deal, which must be approved by the 22-member elected governing council or the general board, was altered without full council approval at the 11th hour this week to include the caveat that the government money would be released "over five years against contracts for specific programmes of activity".

One angry council member said: "I knew nothing about that provision until I had read the notice when it was published. Does this mean that the government will release the money only for the academic programmes and projects it has approved?"

Cambridge vice-chancellor Alec Broers said this would not be the case. He told The THES: "Ministers want to know the money is well spent, but we have the assurance of senior officials that they will not attach a lot of strings. We are not going to be tied down in detail about how every penny is spent." A spokesman for the Treasury said it wanted to ensure the money is spent in line with its objectives while allowing the CMI "some sort of freedom".

Professor Broers also played down fears that the richer MIT will prove to be the dominant partner at Cambridge's expense, as details over intellectual property remain unclear. He said they were not worried about MIT pillaging. On the contrary, he expects the deal to make Cambridge a major player in the United States.

The arrangement is set to be subject to furious debate among the dons and may still be blocked by ballot. The council and the general board have endorsed the proposed collaboration in principle but more detailed arrangements will have to be discussed by dons.

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