Pounds 400m research ransom

April 3, 1998

THE government must spend at least an extra Pounds 400 million on research infrastructure if Britain's future prosperity is not to be put at risk, the powerful House of Commons science and technology select committee warned this week.

In its report on the implications of Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into higher education for university research, the committee also says that research funders, whether from the public, voluntary or private sectors, must pay the "full economic costs" of the research they fund.

Most charities do not pay the indirect costs of research. The committee says more money should be made available to research councils to cover costs including libraries, computing, premises, depreciation of equipment and administration.

The committee says the "government has a duty to provide basic research facilities" and should allocate between Pounds 410 and Pounds 430 million of new money to research infrastructure over the next three years. The government, which has so far avoided long-term commitments on research, is obliged to respond to the report.

The MPs find the arguments overwhelming in support of retaining the dual support system, whereby the research councils support individual projects while the funding councils provide funding to departments. They say that "it would be foolish to mistake the consequences of underfunding for fundamental flaws in the mechanism itself".

But they dismiss Dearing's proposal for a revolving loan fund, partly funded by industry, as "implausible"; reject his proposals for a per capita payment for those academics not entering the RAE; endorse the idea of a separate arts and humanities research council but do not think it should come under the research council structure; criticise Dearing for "almost completely ignoring" multidisciplinary and collaborative research; and say it would be unwise for the research assessment exercise to move towards greater selectivity.

The committee's comments came as an independent study revealed that research councils are underfunding the research they commission from universities by Pounds 185 million a year - Pounds 75 million more than the shortfall estimated by Dearing.

The study, by consultants Coopers & Lybrand and commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, indicates this is a conservative estimate of the additional amount of money needed to meet the full indirect costs of research council projects.

A report on the findings produced by the CVCP as supplementary evidence to its submission to the comprehensive spending review says the shortfall for indirect costs excludes spending associated with supervision of research council projects by academics, and is on top of an estimated Pounds 474 million needed to update and replace research equipment.

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