Rumours of science cash with strings attached

May 29, 1998

Alan Thomson explains what the government's comprehensive spending review could offer further and higher education

SINCE the arrival of Labour and the publication of the Dearing report, scientists have been awaiting the comprehensive spending review for answers and financial commitments.

But one source close to the Office of Science and Technology said: "There are still no facts on the CSR, just rumours down the civil service chain."

Science minister John Battle has spent the past year enthusiastically supporting science programmes yet backing away from committing money. Expectations have been raised, and though there is considerable optimism that science may do quite well from the CSR, few believe that many of these raised expectations can be met.

The extent of the problems facing science and research are clear.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee estimated, in the wake of Dearing, that at least an extra Pounds 400 million was needed over the next three years to provide basic research facilities in universities.

In addition, an independent study suggested it would cost the research councils an extra Pounds 185 million a year to pay the full indirect costs of the university research they fund.

On top of this, the research councils have underlined the problems of low stipends which, in some subjects, now appear too derisory to attract the best potential postgraduate students to research.

They have also claimed that without significant increases in funding Britain's research portfolio will have to narrow considerably. Though science funding overall increased under the Tories, it has fallen relative to other countries.

With this in mind, the Office of Science and Technology is thought to have asked for up to Pounds 500 million a year extra for the science base.

There is a feeling that science may be holding its ground in the CSR. Promoted as an underpinning activity of value beyond research and education, science fits well with the government's ideas of innovation and wealth creation.

Already, in the budget, money has been found for a venture capital fund to commercialise university science research, while the Foresight programme and the Joint Research Equipment Initiative, which brings in private money as well as state money to boost university research equipment, have been backed.

There is a feeling that science may well gain, but that any extra money is likely to be prescribed, coming with strings attached, to either raise stipends, or to cover the indirect costs of university research. Any money for renewing research equipment is likely to be tied to joint private money.

Whether there will be extra money to increase the volume of research, or for the research councils to allocate as they choose, is another question entirely.

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