Science projects suffer in squeeze

May 5, 2000

Strategic research by the British Geological Survey has suffered from a combination of government short-termism, the focused demands of commercial contracts and a long, gradual squeeze on science budget funding.

A number of high-profile projects, including investigations into radioactive waste and natural radon gas emissions, have been jeopardised or restricted by the resulting lack of manoeuvrability in the organisation's resources.

David Falvey, director of the BGS, said the "slow decline" in strategic research funding was being turned around, with the Natural Environment Research Council (its parent body) recently agreeing to pump in an extra Pounds 1 million a year.

Meanwhile, sweeping changes to the corporate strategy of the BGS will target more commercial work.

However, in a letter to the House of Commons science and technology committee, Dr Falvey said that the allocation of a large slice of the science budget funding meant that little flexibility remained to meet new priorities.

Among the recent casualties of this, he listed:

The fact that the BGS gets only Pounds 50,000 of government cash a year to map the distribution of radon gas risk across the UK, despite the unique geological origin of the radioactive substance that is believed to be one the most significant causes of cancer in the UK

Research into radioactive waste has virtually ceased after Nirex, the UK agency responsible for its disposal, withdrew funds after the Sellafield public inquiry

collapsed

The lack of a long-term commitment to research into the underground disposal of carbon dioxide, with just two years of funding secured from the European Union and the Department of Trade and Industry.

The trend towards short-term contracts for government department work also meant there were problems developing and retaining appropriately expert staff.

Dr Falvey told the committee: "Over many years, the research councils have tended to favour 'pure' science, rather than 'applied' science, in the belief that the 'user' will pay for the latter.

"So far," he said, "the 'user', in general, and government departments, in particular, have been reluctant to pay for such long-term monitoring, despite the importance of the information."

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