Overheads must be paid for

June 13, 1997

FUNDING councils, research councils, companies, charities: they all agree that research needs expensive equipment. They part company, however, on who should provide it.

The urgency of this issue, whose ramifications extend well beyond "big science", is highlighted this week by work carried out by consultants for the university vice chancellors and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (page 52), which shows that hundreds of millions of pounds worth of research each year is being carried out without its indirect costs - the acceptable term for "overheads" - being met. One result is that "non-directed" research, the search for new knowledge at a stage where it is not yet possible to get a contract for the work involved, is being squeezed out of the university system.

A variety of ways around this problem are already being explored. One which deserves applause is Sir Ron Dearing's series of meetings with heads of large firms, urging them to put cheap finance into a research equipment fund (page 52). These captains of industry have long taken the view that having paid their taxes, they have already paid for university equipment, much as they have already paid for an army to prevent Britain being invaded. However, a system which involved few financial risks, thanks to a government guarantee, and gave them access to a group in which they could influence other stakeholders like the research and funding councils, might well be attractive. As a Dearing recommendation, it would be hard for the government to reject out of hand. And doubtless the guarantee could stay off the balance sheet for budget deficit purposes.

However, the risks of such a scheme should not be understated. Subjects which have little commercial spinoff are likely to be less attractive to such underwriters, so that the people overseeing the spending need genuine independence.

If equipment is being used to produce work of direct value to a firm, it can pay directly anyway. And firms paying up must be clear that they are not buying anything except better university research - for example, that they are not buying the results of the research.

Pressure on equipment budgets is also another factor pointing towards increased university collaboration within regions and to the emergence of regional research universities and research departments. In the east of England (pages 8 and 9), the presence of Cambridge makes the identity of the big research institution simple to guess, although as we report, other universities have research strengths. In other regions it is less clear.

In medical research, where concentration is a well-established trend, the research charities are right to point out that they have often paid for equipment, buildings and other big capital items, despite their refusal to pay most overheads as normally defined. This means big money for the chosen universities, but also allows the charities a role in shaping the sector which is not available to companies.

As medicine and the Edinburgh versus Cambridge observatory row demonstrate, funding for equipment is about far more than paying for machines. It is about the structure of the university system - where things happen, how decisions are taken, who pays the big sums and how the funders relate to the users.

Opening up a channel of new money to meet the acute equipment needs of British academics would be a notable success for Sir Ron's inquiry - and a notable gain for industry.

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