Double jeopardy

January 19, 1996

This week's science budget allocations show that nearly three years after the White Paper, Realising our Potential, we are still a long way away from a coordinated approach to paying for science: and things are getting worse.

British science is now seriously underfunded yet the budget is being called on to fill holes in the capital budgets of the funding councils. Competing for research funds is a well accepted principle but it is absurd to apply it, as the Department of Trade and Industry now plans to, to equipment. If only the best of the alpha-rated projects are getting funding, and even there under considerable pressure, the researchers should not have to compete again for the equipment they need. Top scientists already spend too much time bidding for money: the plan for formal bids for equipment cash can only make things worse.

This problem ought to have been solved - before the appearance of Realising our Potential - when the research councils were made responsible for all costs apart from permanent staff and buildings. They became responsible for everything from electricity to mass spectrometers: and they got the cash the Universities Funding Council had used to pay for these overheads.

Now they are apparently unable to pay for the equipment needed for the projects they fund, and researchers are expected to rely on an external user community to pay part of the cost.

In some industries this will do little beyond formalising existing relationships. Departments of chemistry and chemical engineering are gratefully familiar with the chemical industry's enlightened ideas about the need for the well-found laboratory. But it is unlikely that the National Health Service has enough spare cash to pay half the equipment costs of medical schools. There is too little money in both the funding council part of the competition and the research councils part. For all equipment costing over Pounds 250,000 there is Pounds 13 million. Even if the user community doubles that it would buy at most 104 pieces of equipment. The Pounds 5 million for cheaper equipment might buy as few as 40 items even if users pay up in full.

Worse, only the four research councils backed by major industries are involved in the new scheme so far. Astronomy, particle physics, economics and social science are out in the cold. Lacking industrial support costs them Government funding as well. This kind of double jeopardy needs urgently to be removed.

Adding further to uncertainty is the cost of participation in international research. The overrun in the coming year, put at Pounds 18 million, is made worse by devaluation of sterling. Sir John Cadogan, director general of the research councils, warns that future excesses of this size cannot be tolerated.

At least, amid such misery, the Government has had the grace to hold down allocations to the Realising our Potential awards, which circumvent all good peer review practice in favour of "picking winners". The betting must be that they will now fade away.

But that is small comfort. Many in Whitehall now acknowledge that British science is underfunded but the political will to correct it is lacking. John Durant (page 16) may be on to the reason why - and where the solution may lie.

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