The Natural Environment Research Council is “taking the next steps” to be able to move the National Oceanography Centre and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology out of public ownership if it wanted to, its chief executive has told Times Higher Education.
Duncan Wingham said that no final decision has been made about whether the centres will become charities and the process is expected to take one or two years.
The fate of a third centre, the British Geological Survey, is still under discussion.
The decision was made at a meeting of the Nerc council in the first week of December. The research council has been considering how best to run the centres for some time because of the squeeze on public funding. It was also asked to do so by the government’s triennial review of the research councils.
“We wish our centres to be sustainable and thrive, if at all possible. It is fairly clear that in order to do that they will have to diversify their income sources and reach out to a broader range of, you could say, customers,” he said.
The preferred ownership option is to give the centres charitable status with trading subsidies, which would provide a mechanism that could allow them to engage in commercial activities in time.
Professor Wingham said that the charitable status “allows us to confirm the primary scientific nature of these institutes into the future”. He added that there was “nothing radical” about the solution.
Nerc moved the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Scottish Association for Marine Science out of public ownership and into a similar ownership model about a decade ago, he explained.
“Since that time the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council has moved a number of its institutes into that type of arrangement,” he said.
“We are not deciding to do this, we are simply saying that were we to do this, we are satisfied this form is the appropriate one.”
Nerc is still discussing the potential future of the BGS, which plays a slightly different role to the NOC and CEH in that it provides a service for government and industry, he said.