Raiding the piggy bank

October 6, 1995

The Government looks set to reduce its commitment to basic research yet further - despite their protestations in the science White Paper, Realising Our Potential.

Money allocated to the research councils for funding pure research in universities is now to be opened up to Government research laboratories, with politically fashionable near-market projects the chief beneficiaries. This follows a decision to allow commercial organisations to bid for research council money. Now, as the Department of Trade and Industry said this week, "all competent suppliers" will be able to bid for research council funds - private companies, universities and Government research establishments. In principle, this includes overseas universities and companies.

There is too little money for basic science anyway without the Government repeatedly dipping into the kitty to mollify its friends in industry or solve the housekeeping problems of its own research laboratories. When money was transferred from the university funding councils to the research councils reassurances were given that the cash would stay within the university system. People were sceptical then, fearing greater direction of funds and less scope for original research, fewer opportunities for young scientists to establish themselves, and less funding for work which does not meet with Government approval and has no obviously lucrative application. How right they were. The cumulative impact is evident in the Medical Research Councils difficulties (page 3).

This latest step will be seen by many practising scientists as designed to push them into near market research. Of particular concern is that research will increasingly move out of the universities where it informs teaching and that scarce money will go to support work that is politically fashionable but not of high quality.

The research councils pride themselves on the fact that they fund only projects rated as excellent after rigorous peer review. But the pressure can be formidable to fund projects that meet with government approval. There is nothing wrong, of course, in Government seeking more funding for wealth-creating science. What is wrong is that rather than finding extra money for it and/or bullying its friends in industry, it simply raids the cash which supports scientists in universities.

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