John Taylor and Michael Dexter explain the background to the first JIF awards, announced this week.
Applications that have secured funding in the first round of the Joint Infrastructure Fund awards were announced on Tuesday (see box).
Out of a total fund of Pounds 700 million, about Pounds 150 million was awarded to 37 applications based in universities from Strathclyde to Southampton. The money will go a long way towards meeting essential building, refurbishment and equipment costs to ensure that the UK scientific community remains at the forefront of international research.
JIF was established in July 1998, with a commitment of Pounds 300 million each from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Wellcome Trust, later augmented by Pounds 100 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
It aims to address the deterioration of university infrastructure, a problem identified by Dearing in 1997. Dearing recommended that over Pounds 400 million needed to be injected into the university system to halt this decline.
Given its charitable objective to fund research for healthcare advances, the Wellcome Trust's Pounds 300 million would be spent on the biomedical sciences, while the government's share would cover the whole spectrum of science and engineering, on behalf of the six participating research councils. Hefce's Pounds 100 million is allocated to universities in England.
Although Pounds 700 million is a substantial sum, it is now obvious that demand is greater than Dearing's original estimate. This was reflected in the intense competition for funding in the first round of applications, where we received 185 proposals between October and December 1998, requesting more than Pounds 850 million. These figures indicate a university structure that needs support for a first-class, dynamic science base.
We were not only struck by the number of applications submitted, but pleased by the high quality of proposals. Tough decisions had to be made by a Joint Executive Committee, chaired by John Taylor, with Mike Dexter as deputy chair, comprising equal numbers representing the government funding agencies (such as research council chief executives) and the Wellcome Trust.
To prevent any conflict of interests, all applications were subjected to peer review. The Wellcome Trust administered applications in the life sciences and set up an International Science Advisory Board which reviewed applications and made recommendations to the JEC. Other research councils processed their own applications and, similarly, those recommended for funding reached the JEC for a final decision.
Peer review processes such as the ISAB are the best way of guaranteeing that such a wide range of disciplines are judged on scientific merit and only the best applications are passed to the JEC - which judges primarily on the quality of the science rather than quotas or regionalisation.
Those funded in the first round were considered the best. About 20 grants were deferred by the JEC. Of these, some were carried forward to be judged against other comparable grants in the second round. This also means that they can be used as a yardstick to measure and ensure continued high quality of funded proposals. All participants agreed that comparative deferrals would be a good way of ensuring that the best bids receive funding.
We are aware of many substantial bids coming through in further rounds, and are confident that both high numbers and standards will be maintained.
Working with our colleagues on the JIF has been a learning experience. The challenge has been to ensure that we are not out to fight our corner but to represent and serve the UK science base. The success of this first round in the JIF applications and allocations is a tremendously encouraging start. JIF has begun to address deficiency in the UK science resource base and is well on its way to meeting its objective of ensuring that the UK remains a world leader in scientific research.
John Taylor, director general of research councils and chairman of the JEC. Michael Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust and deputy chairman of the JEC.