Imbalance threatens dual support

December 18, 1998

The dual support system of funding research could be threatened by a lack of balance between the two funding legs. Cash is being concentrated on new buildings and state-of-the-art equipment, but the corresponding increase in support for academic staff is minimal.

This week the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced it would increase its block grant for research in 1998-2000 by a mere 0.5 per cent in real terms to Pounds 829 million. Special funding, which must be spent on initiatives identified by the funding council, received a bumper funding boost of 16 per cent. Most of this will be spent on infrastructure, such as refurbishing university laboratories.

Of the Pounds 396 million in special funding for 1999-2000, Pounds 85 million will go on capital infrastructure projects. About Pounds 50 million of this will be spent on building new labs, refurbishing existing ones, and buying new equipment.

HEFCE also announced that the extra Pounds 300 million that it received for research over three years, following the comprehensive spending review, would be spent on new buildings and equipment (this figure includes the Pounds 50 million above). Researchers had assumed that the money would be spent on staff support, complementing the extra cash that the research councils and the Wellcome Trust have to spend on infrastructure.

Peter Cotgreave of Save British Science said: "It is very worrying that all this HEFCE money is going on infrastructure. Both the funding councils and the research councils are putting money into the same leg. Meanwhile, individual heads of departments are having real problems with their recurrent costs. (Increasing infrastructure funding) could make the situation on recurrent costs even worse."

His concerns were echoed by staff at the Royal Society. "The key thing that HEFCE does for researchers is buy them time to think and explore ideas," said Peter Collins, head of science advice. "If that were eroded, then it would be a problem."

HEFCE announced that it would spend Pounds 100 million of the Pounds 300 million extra it got from the CSR setting up a fund to run alongside the Joint Infrastructure Fund, a Pounds 600 million initiative run by the research councils and the Wellcome Trust. Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy at HEFCE, said that the funding council had yet to identify how this fund would differ from JIF.

Researchers could use the same bids to apply to both funds, according to Brian Fender, chief executive of HEFCE. But he denied that HEFCE would mop up unsuccessful JIF applications. HEFCE is still considering the options for spending the remaining Pounds 200 million, but it will not be used on recurrent costs such as staff.

The council also announced this week that teaching funding would be increased by 3.7 per cent in real terms to Pounds 2,869 million in 1999- 2000. The increase in funding, however, does not fully cover the increase in student numbers: there will be a cut of 0.75 per cent in per capita core funding in real terms. About Pounds 86 million has been set aside for widening participation and enrolling an extra ,000 full-time equivalent students. HEFCE has also allocated Pounds 18 million to ensure that institutions spend similar amounts on similar subjects.

Total research funding is up 0.5 per cent to Pounds 849 million. Just Pounds 20 million will be spent on generic funding. This cash, down 2.5 per cent on last year, is used to encourage collaboration with users such as industry and the NHS.

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