Scientists in Interdisciplinary Research Centres are concerned about possible closures as the Government and research councils begin to take a close look at the centres in the light of changes in science policy.
Set up in the late 1980s, the 21 centres were given Government backing, via the councils, on a declining basis for ten years. Thereafter, it was expected that the facilities would be wholly financed by industry and commerce. Most of the centres are unlikely to be able to meet this expectation and closure of some of the IRCs is inevitable.
The centres are linked to research councils according to their area of work and, in a move that reflects the concern in many of the centres, directors of a group of IRCs allied to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will meet later next month to discuss the future of their facilities.
Research areas covered by the seven EPSRC centres include optoelectronics at Southampton University; process systems engineering at Imperial College, London and University College London; high performance materials at Swansea and Birmingham and superconductivity at Cambridge University. Other councils which have IRCs include the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council.
A source at one of the EPSRC centres says that "continuing as we are after our ten-year period is clearly not an option".
The squeeze on finances and the need to bring the centres closer into line with the aims of the 1993 science White Paper are among the key factors influencing the EPSRC as it looks at ways of operating in the future.
But there is concern among directors of EPSRC centres over the council's proposals for what happens after the ten-year period. It is suggesting peer review of both the global mission of each centre and of each research proposal.
Funding would be restricted to core funding, amounting to a small fraction of current spend, and research proposals requiring grants from the council would have to undergo the normal competitive procedure operating for the universities.
One director, echoing the view of several of his colleagues, says: "Peer review just does not work for us. IRCs are a coherent, integrated operation and if we have to have peer review that will necessarily mean a significant number of our proposals will fail. This will lead to fragmentation of our activities. What needs to be realised is that all our proposals dovetail into each other. Our peer review is the output."
He says that the EPSRC and the other councils "should be proud of having set up the centres in the first place," adding that on the basis that no change is not an option, the EPSRC should close down the unsuccessful ones after the ten-year period and continue funding those that have proved their worth.
The EPSRC is also seriously considering the idea of converting some of the more successful IRCs into Faraday Centres, originally proposed as Britain's answer to Germany's Fraunhofer Institutes.
The first IRCs were set up in 1988 and include those dealing with superconductivity, surface science and semi-conductor materials.
According to a Government response last month to a question by shadow science minister, John Battle, virtually all the centres are due to undergo their next big review over the next two years.