University researchers believe that the dual support system has collapsed, causing them difficulty in obtaining the equipment necessary for their work.
A report from the Wellcome Trust, which has carried out a survey of researchers, says that scientists are being forced to make requests for their equipment exclusively through research grants. This means that the requests have to be closely tied to the proposed research - a cost which could not always be justified if the equipment was needed for a variety of projects.
The study also points out that the cost of state-of-the-art equipment can often dwarf that of an average project grant, showing that research is becoming more capital intensive and less labour intensive. Researchers also complained that the equipment portion of a standard project grant application was often deleted in the award to save money.
The trust says: "Support from central government funds appeared to be either static or in decline, giving cause for concern over the ability of university research departments to update equipment."
While the trust has unearthed considerable disquiet in the research community about funding for equipment in general, the main aim of its probe was to evaluate its own special equipment funding scheme targeted at items costing in excess of Pounds 60,000. The study involved face-to-face and telephone interviews with 79 applicants and grant assessment panel members.
The report says that between 1992 and 1994, the scheme resulted in Pounds 12.3 million being spent on equipment in addition to the Pounds 40 million the trust made available through other funding routes.
The most commonly requested or granted instruments were automated DNA sequencers and imaging equipment such as electron microscopes.
The trust says that despite expressions of concern over equipment in universities, applications to the scheme fell in its first two years and awareness of the scheme among a sample of universities was "very low".