Double-or-quit threat to science

January 19, 1996

The Government has launched an Pounds 18 million scheme for funding research equipment in the hope that its investment will be doubled from private sources.

Universities will be allowed to bid for money for equipment for high quality research projects if they can secure matching amounts from industry, charities or Government departments.

But vice chancellors have warned that the private sector is unlikely to jump at the chance to invest in the research infrastructure at a time when the Government is reducing its own support.

A spokesman for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said: "Investors will see this as just filling in the gap left by the Government in the Budget settlement. If they provide money for equipment, they will want it to be used only for research projects they are already funding."

The funding will be targetted towards bids that are in line with the research priorities highlighted by the Technology Foresight programme. The initiative has been put together using money from the existing budgets of the Office of Science and Technology, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department for Education for Northern Ireland.

The Government denies that the scheme is the result of cuts in the public expenditure settlement. However a Department for Education and Employment spokeswoman admitted this week that the initiative had been formulated after the Budget.

Details were announced by science minister Ian Taylor and the director general of research councils, Sir John Cadogan, as part of this year's science budget allocations to the research councils.

It will run as two competitions. Competition A has a budget of Pounds 5 million - provided by the OST through the research councils - and will cover bids for items worth up to Pounds 250,000. Competition B is for items worth more than Pounds 250,000 and will funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Pounds 11.5 million) and its Scottish equivalent, SHEFCE, which is providing Pounds 1.5 million.

At least another Pounds 1.5 million will also be available for a variation of competition B being run by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. But the Welsh Council does not require matching money from outside sources because this option "had not been considered".

A spokesman for HEFCE said the council was aware that there was already a lot of matched funding activity, and that there was the possibility that finding more would prove difficult. But he added: "To the extent that it is successful it really is worth doing."

The initiative will be overseen by a steering group which meets today to draw up the call for bids. The OST said details of the bidding process would be announced shortly.

Mr Taylor also announced a review of financial provisions for equipment and facilities in universities. He said the Government is particularly keen to have private sector involvement in long-term arrangements for research equipment procurement by universities.

Areas to be examined include possibilities for better equipment sharing arrangements across institutions, secondary use of equipment by industry and commerce and leasing of items. Mr Taylor said: "I shall be exploring with the Department for Education and Employment and the research councils all available options and new concepts. Radical ideas will be taken into account."

He said he was "determined not to have a situation where the equipment budget fluctuates from year to year. But I don't want it to be a continual battle for money. I want there be other structures of support that can be brought into play. I recognise there is a problem and I am trying to deal with it."

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