No charity in paying full costs

May 23, 1997

UNIVERSITIES will look with some unease at this week's report on the infrastructure for academic research (page three), produced by a forum including major research funders in the public, private and charitable sectors. It calls for yet more statistics gathering and management effort, devoted this time to teasing out direct research costs, core infrastructure costs and other research costs, but does not guarantee any fresh funds.

Indeed, things are even gloomier. Altering the way the cash which the research councils or charities have to spend is classified will not increase the total. If increased transparency over spending means funders pay the full cost of the work they support, instead of the marginal costs only, this will simply mean less research is funded.

The biggest funding charity, Wellcome, points out that charitable research funding has been the system's only growth point in recent years. Wellcome and other charities have their own charitable aims, and enriching universities is not one of them.

The tacit acceptance that research funders might pay the full costs of their research would mark a sea change in thinking about British university research. The famous "unfunded alphas" of a few years ago - top-rated projects for which no money was available - have ceased to cause public concern.

Instead, the idea that universities are doing too much research is catching on. Instead of worrying about too little cash for overheads, more people are concerned that universities are taking on research projects too cheaply.

Some of the results of having fewer, better-funded, research projects might be benign. Fewer people might be strung along with unrealistic hopes of a long-term research career. But the crush of research proposals, and of would-be researchers hunting funds, suggest that academics regard research as fundamental to their job - and their prospects. The former polytechics' attempts to establish themselves in research - which last year's research assessment exercise showed have met with some success - underline the point As the forum's figures show, research funders today pay overheads ranging from nothing (for the medical charities) to 45 per cent of direct costs (for the research councils) or 33 per cent of staff costs (for the EU). With the private sector, the percentages can be higher, depending on the institution's negotiating skills.

University managers might like the idea of standardising these figures. But if they do so, charities in particular might decide that paying full costs means taking full control A move to full overhead payments will tempt charities to favour their own research centres at the expense of their university spending - not something academics could contemplate with pleasure.

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