Science bodies call for infrastructure emphasis in capital spending considerations

Maintenance and upgrading should not be overlooked when budget allocations are made

July 10, 2014

The government must ensure that the allocation of its expanded capital budget is accompanied by adequate funding for the running, maintaining and upgrading of facilities.

This is one of the key messages contained in responses by scientific bodies to the government’s consultation on capital expenditure, which closed on 4 July.

The consultation follows the government’s announcement in last June’s spending review that science capital spending will be increased to £1.1 billion a year until 2020-21, and its commitment to allocate funding on the basis of a long-term “road map”.

In a joint submission to the consultation, the UK’s four learned academies argue that investment in major new capital projects “should be accompanied by a long-term commitment to maintenance, operational and upgrade costs to ensure their future viability and competitiveness”.

In its own submission, the Royal Academy of Engineering argues that the current assumption that running costs “can be drawn from already stretched research council baselines, institutional budgets or third-party sources” is not sustainable.

It adds that the road map should also commit funds for the maintenance of existing infrastructure, “which is ageing”.

According to the academies, the road map should also plan for the next 10 years, since “five-year commitments – although preferable to ad hoc announcements on capital investment that have happened since the 2010 spending review – are not optimal to ensure the most effective planning and stability”.

Several bodies also caution against committing too high a proportion of the capital budget to large new projects.

The Russell Group recommends that “the majority of funding be allocated at the institution and research project level”.

Funding that is to be allocated directly to institutions should also be “at least equal to that allocated to research projects through the research councils”, the group adds, since direct allocation “provides [universities with] the autonomy and certainty to invest in areas of scientific opportunity”.

The Society of Biology notes a concern that “the UK may be moving away from peer-reviewed, competition-based funding towards a large-project focus decided by government”.

The society says that decisions on large science projects “should be led by the scientific community”, and that selection should be based on “research priorities, scientific, societal need and peer review, as well as job creation and economic pull”.

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