Science gets its best deal in years

December 13, 2002

UK science has got its best financial settlement since the 1960s but delays in revamping the dual-funding system could still cost some laboratories dear.

The research councils are to get a major increase in core funding in the government's science budget announced on Wednesday.

Cash is also to be channelled into a range of multi-council programmes, including those on stem cells, space science and sustainable energy sources. In addition, there will be significant sums to increase the capacity and capability of universities to carry out research.

John Taylor, director general of the research councils, told the House of Commons science and technology select committee that the research council grants would be redesigned after a review of the dual-funding system was completed.

Questioned by committee chairman Ian Gibson, he said that measures to redress the balance of funding between the research and funding councils were contained in the budget.But, he said, a £120 million initiative to provide more support for the staff costs associated with research would have to wait until 2005-06, after the review's completion.

This was later described as foolish by Peter Cotgreave, director of the pressure group Save British Science. He said: "They know there are extra overheads of £120 million associated with the existing levels of grants but will do nothing until the dual-funding system is revamped. Meanwhile, the existing problems will get worse."

Science minister Lord Sainsbury said that quality of financial management in academe needed to improve. "If they make wrong decisions, they are not always alert to what the implications could be." The 2002 spending review increased the growth rate of the science budget from an average of 7 per cent year-on-year to 10 per cent in real terms from 2004-05.

From an annual baseline figure of £2.336 billion in 2003-04, an extra £893 million of new money will be added.

Much of this will be back-loaded towards 2005-06, by which time the total budget will be just short of £3 billion, more than double the figure for 1997-98.

The Office of Science and Technology said: "Public investment in this base not only generates essential raw material for innovation - new ideas, knowledge, understanding, solutions, techniques, processes, technology - but also the highly educated people that can both exploit this raw material and more generally contribute to the development of new businesses, products and services for the country and its people."

The Medical Research Council will get an overall budget of £503 million by 2005-06, including its share of the new cross-council programme funding; the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council £546 million (including £41.7 million for cross-council core programmes); the Natural Environment Research Council £305 million; the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council £329 million; the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council £285 million; the Economic and Social Research Council £120 million; and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils £134 million.

The budget was drawn up through lengthy consultation with the Research Councils UK strategy group The Royal Society, which is to get an extra £5 million, said it would now be able to expand its relocation fellowships scheme, which was set up to help scientists take up new posts if their spouse or partner moved.

Sir Alec Broers, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is to get £900,000, complained that the organisation had received only half the level of funding it had requested to expand its support of engineering researchers.

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