Funds needed to employ best

July 7, 2000

The extra Pounds 1 billion for science announced by chancellor Gordon Brown this week must be matched with funds to attract top lecturers and researchers, universities have warned.

Tony Bruce, policy director for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "Infrastructure is only part of the research story - universities need to recruit and retain high-quality staff to undertake the research."

Sir Aaron Klug, president of the Royal Society, said the infrastructure money would help attract and retain good scientists in the United Kingdom's science base.

However, Sir Aaron added: "The government must ensure that universities are able to offer competitive salaries to scientists at all grades... to make the best use of the laboratories and equipment."

Peter Cotgreave, secretary of the pressure group Save British Science, agreed that the salaries of permanent academic staff had to be brought up to competitive rates.

He said: "If Gordon Brown and Tony Blair want to enjoy the full effect of this money, they need to introduce a substantial increase in investment in the funding councils to pay salaries and day-to-day running costs."

The Pounds 1 billion package has four components. It includes Pounds 675 million over two years for refurbishing dilapidated laboratories and replacing obsolete equipment. However, universities will have to find 25 per cent of the costs themselves from industry or other external sources.

The Pounds 675 million fund - called the Science Research Investment Fund - will replace the existing Joint Infrastructure Fund, used to distribute extra science funding from the 1998 spending review. The new fund will allocate money according to each university's priorities, beginning in the academic year 2002-03.

Chris Llewellyn Smith, provost of University College London, described the extra funding as "a shot in the arm for science generally". He added: "The problem with the old JIF was that it was not matched to the priorities of the universities. Too much was for new developments rather than the consolidation and improvement of existing facilities, and the whole process was expensive and time-consuming."

A further Pounds 225 million will come from the Wellcome Trust, exclusively for sciences within the trust's remit. It will target Pounds 150 million on refurbishing old buildings and decaying science facilities, and Pounds 75 million on revamping and buying new equipment for biomedical science to drive forwards post-genomic research.

Mike Dexter, director of the trust, said: "When we talk to vice-chancellors and some of our top scientists about the conditions they are working under, it is clear that research in some of our better universities was becoming non-competitive. This money will enable us to continue competing at the very highest level - it will make a tremendous difference."

Dr Dexter said he felt the JIF exercise was a job only half done and that he was disturbed by the large number of high-quality bids for funding that could not be met.

Many of the best unmet JIF bids will be used as a guide to allocate resources, with trust money matched by government funds and the universities expected to raise about a quarter of each project's costs from other sources.

The Office of Science and Technology will retain a further Pounds 100 million to modernise research council institutes and contribute to large national projects such as the next-generation internet.

In addition to the Pounds 1 billion, the chancellor announced an increase in PhD stipends for science and engineering postgraduate students. The extra Pounds 34 million over three years will come from boosted research council officers. Basic stipends will rise to Pounds 9,000 for students starting in 2003. Those on a London weighting could get about Pounds 11,000.

The boost in stipends was welcomed by Dr Dexter as an opportunity for universities to attract the best students into research rather than going abroad or into industry.

But he said the issue of low postdoc salaries, which the Wellcome Trust pay at 30 per cent over base university levels, remained to be dealt with.

Research-led universities stand to do well elsewhere in the spending review. As well as reviewing departmental spending, the Treasury has conducted cross-cutting reviews in areas including the knowledge economy, from which research-led institutions could further benefit.

The settlement for higher education is expected later this month.

Leader, page 14

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