'Learn to share more': Willetts predicts new collaborative age in wake of capital cuts

Government announces 45.7 per cent reduction over four years. Paul Jump reports

December 23, 2010

Sharp declines in the research capital budget will bring about a new era of collaboration among universities, according to David Willetts.

The universities and science minister was speaking in the wake of this week's announcement of the science budget allocations for a four-year period beginning in 2011-12.

Indicative figures suggest that the average capital spend on research will fall by 45.7 per cent compared with the 2010-11 baseline.

Average cash-terms cuts for the individual research councils range from 14.6 per cent for the Science and Technology Facilities Council and 29.9 per cent for the Economic and Social Research Council to 77 per cent for the Medical Research Council.

The Large Facilities Capital Fund will fall by an average of 14.8 per cent across the four years, although the government hopes to give the go-ahead to a "small number" of further projects next year.

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said a policy of cutting capital investment "cannot be considered a sensible long-term strategy" and had to be reversed as soon as public finances permitted.

But Mr Willetts said the capital cuts would force universities to "learn to share and pool more". He invited institutions to follow the lead of University College London and get involved with the consortium behind the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation.

David Price, vice-provost for research at UCL, said his institution was already involved in "very positive" discussions with other local Russell Group universities about sharing resources and "visions" for specific subjects.

"The time has come to be more grown up and work together. Research isn't a football game with winners and losers," he said.

Research's resource budget has been ring-fenced in cash terms, but the balance of the dual-support system has tipped slightly towards the councils. Their overall funding will rise by an average of 1.6 per cent compared with an average 3 per cent cut in the quality-related (QR) stream delivered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The rise is largely accounted for by significant increases in the STFC's international and cross-council facilities budgets. The only other council to see a rise will be the MRC: its earnings from patents will be topped up by the government in order to preserve the value of its income in real terms.

The government document setting out the research budget says that ministers "took account" of how closely councils' delivery plans conformed to a list of "strategic priorities", including maintaining a flow of new researchers and having fewer, larger grant rounds with more active demand management.

The document adds that QR funding will be further focused on "internationally excellent" research at "centres of proven excellence, with the critical mass to address national challenges, compete internationally" and collaborate effectively with business.

But Mr Willetts said he still expected "islands of excellence" in institutions with less established research records to be maintained. He also denied that the support expressed in the document for the impact agenda, and the "significant funding" that will be directed to cross-council research programmes, meant that funding for blue-skies research would be cut.

"This is not a narrow utilitarian agenda or a naive agenda of commercialisation," he said. "People want to have impact and we invite them to describe it, but we recognise it can take many forms."



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