Dual support in danger

March 28, 1997

THE FUTURE of the dual funding system for university research has been called into question by the House of Commons science and technology committee.

Increasing selectivity in research funding by the higher education funding councils, which pay for much science infrastructure, and a lack of co-ordination between them and the research councils, which fund specific projects, have led the MPs to ask "whether there would be any advantage to transferring all research funding to the research councils."

In a report the committee quotes Alan Rudge, chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, who believes the research councils should take over all research funding.

He says: "In taking money from us to do a piece of research, (universities) are actually not able to do it based on the money that we pay them because we do not pay the full overhead. It would be far more effective to have the research councils paying the full overhead."

Although the MPs say that the current system is working well they say that the Science and Engineering Base Co-ordinating Committee (SEBCC), the forum for interaction between the funding councils and the research councils, has failed to forge an effective partnership between the two arms of the system. They did not feel that the SEBCC played a significant role in the dialogue between the research and funding councils.

The report cites Ray Baker, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, who "did not consider the SEBCC had a role to play".

The MPs also criticise the lack of a close working relationship between research councils and Government departments. They highlight tensions between the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and the BBSRC, where MAFF has withdrawn funding at short notice. At the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh where Dolly, the first cloned mammal, was created, funds were cut abruptly.

The report quotes evidence from Dr Baker who said the cost of redundancies, made because MAFF imposed large cuts in commissioned research at short notice, amounted to between Pounds 3 million and Pounds 5 million per year.

The committee said: "The evidence suggests that almost all research councils are facing difficulties because government departments will not recognise their responsibilities for the health of the science base. Any pressure on the science base caused by transfer of expenditure from departments to the science budget or the cancellation of contracts at short notice must be dealt with."

* A decline in the quality of academic infrastructure needs urgent attention, the Council for Science and Technology has warned in its submission to the Dearing inquiry. The council, which advises Government on science policy, says: "There is a prima facie case for some additional funding." It calls for funding to be more focused, particularly on individual researchers and groups.

Opinion page 11

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