Fears over new costing regime

August 27, 2004

Will the model for costing science damage the research it seeks to protect? Anna Fazackerley reports

A government drive for universities to recoup the real costs of research has escaped the attention of many bench scientists, but university heads are predicting that it could change the face of British science.

University finance and research offices have spent months poring over a three-volume manual detailing the new "full economic costing model" that they will be expected to adopt for all research funding applications from the start of next year.

The manual, which includes a request for a lead investigator to keep a diary during a research project, has sparked fears that the Government may be tying up researchers in yet more red tape.

Universities UK, the body representing university heads, confirmed this week that institutions were taking the changes extremely seriously, with many employing new members of staff specifically to deal with the complicated new requirements.

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, which has a pro vice-chancellor working full time on the issue, said: "Full economic costing is incredibly important. It will alter the research environment significantly more than the research assessment exercise."

There is no argument about the need for universities to identify and pay for all of their research overheads - from research equipment to staff time. Academics and funders agree that the current system, with universities unsure of what their real costs are and research grants generally falling well short of covering them, is unsustainable.

But senior figures have argued that the costing strategy will have to be monitored carefully to ensure that it does not damage the research environment it is designed to protect.

Red tape

David Wallace, vice-president of the Royal Society, explained: "I fear that this has been driven by consultants and accountants who almost certainly don't understand what research is about."

Professor Wallace said he was "horrified" when he read the third volume of the instruction manual, which breaks down how universities should calculate the costs of research projects.

"Although it didn't say academics had to keep timesheets, it did imply they had to log time," he said. "If this kind of detail was imposed on academics, it would be a serious risk to our excellent research culture."

In a recent written statement to the Government, UUK took a similar line, praising the system but urging: "Requirements on institutions to demonstrate their use of full economic costing should be proportionate and not represent an additional regulatory burden."

But a spokesperson for the Office of Science and Technology dismissed fears about red tape. He said academics had always had to write down how much time they expected to spend on research projects when they were applying for funding, adding: "They will not be audited or policed on it. And there will be no timesheets."

Selective funding

Under the new system the research councils will eventually be expected to cover full costs of the research they fund. The Treasury's ten-year investment plan for science, published last month, included an extra £80 million to move towards this goal. Experts in the sector estimate that the councils should soon be able to cover about 70 per cent of costs, leaving universities to find the remaining 30 per cent.

Professor Thomas warned that this would make it even harder for universities that have failed to secure sufficient cash from the RAE to compete for vital research funds.

He explained: "Full economic costing might bring selectivity in through the back door in a way far greater than the RAE. You will have to have a significant research council income to continue."

John Archer, principal of Herriot-Watt University and the convener of the UUK's research committee, agreed. "It is not quite a level playing field," he said.

Yet he added that universities with little funding from the RAE could still compete for research council money using other resources such as industry funding to mop up the extra costs.

Game playing

While most universities insist they will play by the book and charge for all of the costs they identify, there are fears that a few might try to undercut their competitors with artificially low bids.

Professor Archer said: "There will no doubt be some sort of game playing, but I think it will be on the edge and I think it will be picked up."

The new requirement for research councils to cover the salary of the principal investigator on their research projects may also have unintended consequences.

Simon Kerridge, deputy director of the graduate research school at Sunderland University, said: "There is a potential problem of universities putting expensive people into principal investigator positions instead of junior staff. That would mean the junior person who was going to be co-principal investigator would no longer get a foot on the ladder."

The OST said this week it was aware of all these anxieties, but it insisted that it did not want to introduce regulations to deal with problems that may never occur.

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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