Out-of-date kit forces big firms to turn to foreign players

June 7, 1996

Clapped-out laboratory equipment in institutions is forcing multinational firms based in the UK to shift their university research to other countries, according to a report published yesterday.

The study by science policy researchers at the University of Manchester says nearly 80 per cent of university science and engineering departments are unable to perform critical experiments because of a lack of funds for vital equipment. An immediate Pounds 470 million is needed to bring priority equipment up to date. Forty-eight per cent of departments surveyed say they fall below the international average standard in academic research equipment. Only 18 per cent believe they are equipped to above this level.

The survey, by Manchester's Policy Research in Engineering Science and Technology and Centre for Applied Social Research, was commissioned by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and the three funding councils. Ninety-one universities took part and 973 departments replied, a response rate of 74 per cent.

Luke Georghiou, PREST director, says: "Our researchers found scientists and engineers stretching their ingenuity to make do with ageing equipment well behind in standard to that of their international competitors."

And industry will not allow dilapidated equipment in British universities to undermine competitiveness: "Multinationals pointed out that they were already relocating their collaborations with universities outside the UK as a direct consequence of decay in the academic infrastructure," the report says.

Leading materials supplier Johnson Matthey was one of 20 major firms surveyed. Brain Harrison, technology director of the precious metals division, says well-trained researchers are becoming harder to find and the company is being forced to recruit overseas. He blames poor funding in key research areas coupled with a declining base of leading-edge equipment. "This decline is obvious to all who interact with UK universities."

Dr Harrison says industry has been willing to help buy kit, but company costs are now very tightly controlled. "Schemes that require 50 per cent matching funding from industry are likely to meet with very little success. This appears to be the thin end of a wedge, with Government seeking opportunities to further cut its contribution to the science base."

Another respondent, pharmaceuticals giant Glaxo Wellcome, is "increasingly concerned" by the declining standard of research equipment in universities. A spokesman says graduates recruited by the company have "relatively little experience and are not familiar with state-of-the-art equipment they must use".

Adam Ingram, shadow science minister, says the report is "deeply disturbing and confirms there has been a retreat from science under this Government. Much of our science base is on the edge of terminal decline and responsibility for this lies with the Government."

CVCP chairman Gareth Roberts says the report shows great concern in industry over the funding cuts in last year's budget. "These cuts will put UK universities at an international disadvantage."

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