The well-found laboratory is the most hard-to-find laboratory in most universities. One recent spending initiative, the Joint Infrastructure Fund, brought in Pounds 800 million of first-rate proposals it could not fund, more than three-quarters of the total bids received. Most university departments have been unable to carry out critical experiments because of lack of equipment.
Research carried out for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has shown that equipment problems are symptomatic of a widening gap between the UK and its competitors in the amount of university research they perform. Things are not all bad. As the CVCP points out, UK researchers are the leaders in 26 of the 152 categories into which research is classified, and British academics' papers are among the most highly cited. Because the figures analysed for the CVCP end in 1997, things will have got slightly better under new Labour.
The problem is deep-seated, nonetheless, and its roots are more in industry than in universities. There are too few British companies, cutting-edge or traditional, willing to lobby for more publicly funded university research or funding research themselves. Industry's capacity to exploit research has been falling at a time when closer and quicker connections between research and new products are essential.
Universities should not be expected to make the case on their own, nor can the taxpayer be expected to foot the whole bill. To reach investment levels proposed by the European Parliament (page 7), firms also need to lobby government to invest more and to sponsor or carry out more research themselves.