Happy landing at Britain's science base

July 24, 1998

Welcome spending spree. Universities, science and further education say what more money will mean

NOW we know. The government's Pounds 1 billion for the science base, adding the research and funding councils' figures (and presumably there is more to be announced for the other regions), gives a rise in annual budget approaching 30 per cent by 2002, an annual average increase of 6 per cent after (predicted) inflation.

Including the Pounds 300 million for capital expenditure - the eventual correction of the infamous 1995 cut on funding council capital - this would yield a real-terms doubling in 12 years if continued.

The Wellcome Trust's Pounds 400 million of new money resulted in a grand total of Pounds 1.4 billion. The trust's intervention under the then directorship of Dame Bridget Ogilvie was a remarkable initiative. So, after the champagne, how has the landscape changed?

In June, Save British Science said that dual support was seriously threatened with extinction through Treasury pressure for all the funding council research money, including academic salaries, to be transferred to the Office of Science and Technology.

Vice-chancellors were informed. Opposition was total. In particular, the OST fiercely opposed the transfer and having to take over the responsibilities of four funding bodies. The Russell group of vice-chancellors wrote to oppose; independent members of the Council for Science and Technology signed a joint letter arguing against the transfer; and Lord Dearing added his voice. SBS had meetings at the Treasury and the No. 10 Policy Unit. On July 14 science minister John Battle told the Commons: "The dual-support system remains in position. It is secure and strengthened."

Concerns remain. The issue of full payment of indirect costs by the research councils is unresolved. Research councils director general Sir John Cadogan has got no extra money to pay them.

He is to lead a review of the working relationship between research and funding councils in using research funds to introduce transparency. Universities will have to make clear what the indirect costs are, perhaps for each grant application.

But even if a contract is agreed, there is no sign that extra money will be forthcoming to fill an estimated Pounds 180 million annual gap. If a large part of the OST's extra Pounds 400 million for research was to be used to increase the volume of research in universities it could become a disaster: a bigger gap, no initiatives in original research, more on short-term contracts.

A better accommodation must be reached; part of the research councils' Pounds 400 million and of the HEFCE's Pounds 300 million will have to be used to reduce the gap and improve job conditions, including salaries. There will not be a lot left.

Worry has been expressed about the genomics emphasis and possible restraints on the use of the Wellcome money for equipment. But the arrival of new money relieves the pressure and provides opportunities elsewhere. Wellcome director Michael Dexter has said progress in exploiting knowledge of the human genome will depend on the strength of the "whole of the science base - not only the biomedical sciences".

The CSR's impact on research funding by other government departments is not known. The issue of bringing responsibility for all departmental research under one roof needs to be revisited.

After SBS met Tony Blair in 1996 he undertook to reinvigorate the science base after the years of under-investment. As prime minister he has made a great start.

John Mulvey. Director of Save British Science.

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