Ministers: minister

June 7, 1996

Scientists are entitled to feel gloomy this week: many years of work went bang on Tuesday and will take years to recover. But this week's report on research equipment (page 6) shows that less spectacular hardware problems are damaging science more generally. It also proves that Britain's elite research universities have already emerged. One institution receives 9 per cent of the equipment money, the top 13 have 50 per cent - and the other 78 have the other half.

But the University of Manchester researchers who produced the report found that even these favoured institutions are not in clover. The general level of equipment provision is no higher than in 1987, the year of the previous survey, and replacing outdated priority items alone would cost Pounds 474 million in the next five years, more than the total equipment spending in the previous five.

If anyone thinks that cash from the private sector can rescue ill-favoured departments from the equipment crisis, they have another think coming. One firm told the survey that "tired-looking departments with pensioned equipment would not be viewed favourably", while others said that the Government was transferring responsibility for training to them via the low level of equipment encountered by graduate students.

More alarmingly, equipment worries are driving chemical and bioscience firms, two high points of the British economy, to look abroad for academic collaborators. Nothing could feed the collapse of academic excellence - or British industry -faster than such a switch, as the funding councils acknowledge by using industrial income as one of their ratings criteria.

Numerous managerial fixes can be imagined for some of the problems. There could be further growth in the national or regional provision of equipment. The difficulty with this approach is that once a piece of equipment is at a remote site and needs to be booked, using it becomes an event. If one of the objectives is to make research students comfortable with equipment, it needs to be along the corridor, not the motorway. In one of the report's international comparisons, researchers at ETH in Zurich said that they had duplicated an expensive machine that already exists nearby because multiple use leads to damaged equipment.

The international comparisons made by the Manchester researchers are discouraging. Edinburgh's structural chemists are falling behind competitors in Michigan and Oslo, partly because they cannot afford the final component of a Pounds 400,000 machine. This may imply poor management at institution level as much as funding council meanness but it does indicate too little cash all round.

In general, government and industrial funders in the United States and continental Europe are more willing than their British counterparts to put money into the laboratory. The advantage this gives their universities is a cumulative one that threatens to weaken British science and make it less of a magnet than ever for staff and students.

There are a few bright spots, notably charities and trusts, whose equipment spending has risen from Pounds 4.5 million in 1990/91 to over Pounds 14 million in 1994/95. But this increase is too small and has been driven mainly by a particular development, the increased financial weight of the Wellcome Trust, which is unlikely to be repeated often.

The overseas comparisons show that more money is needed if equipment problems are not to cause significant damage to British research. But they also show that creative thinking can produce solutions. The United States tax system, for example, encourages generosity from donor firms. British fund-matching schemes to encourage the private sector to share the costs of academic equipment are unpopular and are seen as surrogate taxation by the firms which are under pressure to participate.

The way ahead is likely to include more national equipment sharing, and methods need to be devised to ensure that such equipment does not turn into extra resources for departments already well-provided. One observer consulted for the report concluded that the best practicable solution would be to make some institutions excellent and let the others atrophy. It looks as if the second part of this advice is being followed but the first half is being ignored.

We must have both centres of excellence to keep up with the international competition and a substantial number of research labs equipped to a decent standard in universities whose main mission is local or regional. Research equipment is part of the essential infrastructure of the knowledge-based economy. It is the one thing private funding, be it from charities, industry, bank loans or students' fees, cannot provide. This is government's responsibility, a vital long-term investment in the country's future, and the base from which soft money can be raised. Ministers tempted to brush this week's report aside as special pleading by a vested interest, should pause. It is special pleading, but the vested interest is the country's.

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