The research councils are expecting to have exceeded their target of making £82.2 million in efficiency savings in 2012-13, on their way to recouping £428 million over the course of the current spending review.
As part of the government’s 2010 funding settlement, the councils were asked to implement an efficiency programme, part of which demanded driving down the indirect costs of research in universities by as much as 5 per cent a year, as recommended in the 2010 Wakeham review of full economic costing.
Savings are being reinvested in research, a measure that could help to mitigate the estimated 12 per cent real-terms cut in funding that councils are predicted to face by 2014-15 because of inflation.
According to the annual report of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, published on 11 July, the combined total of research councils’ savings for 2012‑13 is expected to exceed the target, with the BBSRC alone saving £15.9 million on competitive grants, fellowships and from its institutes.
Although explicit savings targets apply only to institutes and grants, councils must also save on the use of assets, international subscriptions and council administration as part of the efficiency programme.
At the time of going to press, Research Councils UK was unable to comment on the progress of a review, outlined in the 2012 report Research Councils UK – Efficiency Programme 2011‑15, that is intended to help it decide if more savings can be made without compromising research quality.
Meanwhile, senior figures have begun to raise concerns about dwindling resources at the councils given the 15 per cent cut to their administrative budgets made in 2010, which are separate from the efficiency programme.
At the annual conference of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators last month, RCUK chair Rick Rylance said that the drop in funding made him “rather concerned”, noting that “sooner rather than later” it might have an effect on the kinds of programmes it could offer.
Earlier this month, an independent review of how the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council obtains and uses strategic advice also called the council’s administrative budget “highly constrained”, adding that this “severely limits the extent to which [staff relationships with a wide range of partners] can be built”.