'Low-cost' culture bad for science, says OST

May 30, 2003

THES reporters look at the new Roberts report on the assessment of research

Universities will have to provide detailed cost breakdowns to accompany grant applications, under proposed reforms to research funding. Research councils will then decide whether the proposal covers the full cost of the research and offers value for money before they fund the project, writes Caroline Davis.

The Office of Science and Technology's plan will move the UK research base away from the "low-cost culture" that led to the £2 billion funding gap identified by last year's Transparency Review.

This week the OST launched a consultation, "The sustainability of university research", to run alongside the Roberts consultation. It is designed to reform the dual-support system so it can meet the full economic cost of publicly funded research.

Universities will be made responsible for recovering full economic costs, whether the funders are research councils, charities, industry or other sponsors.

Last year's science budget allocated an extra £120 million a year from 2005-06 to research councils to cover a larger proportion of the costs of the research they fund. At present, they contribute 46 per cent of the indirect costs of research, while the block grant from the funding councils covers direct costs such as permanent staff, new researcher training, some blue-skies research and infrastructure.

The consultation proposes that research councils pay a fixed proportion of the full economic cost of each project, estimated at between 60 and 70 per cent. It rejects alternatives to simply increase the research council contribution or extend the definition of direct costs.

The OST is keen that funding council money is not used to cross-subsidise the direct costs of commercially commissioned research. It says non-research council funders "will also have to play their part if the UK's research base is to remain healthy".

In the past, many research charities refused to pay indirect costs, arguing that universities' calculations were so opaque that they could not guarantee where they were going. The Wellcome Trust has long argued that funding infrastructure and its running costs were the responsibility of the government.

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