Science research under pressure

April 10, 1998

Easter is a good time to review higher education's position, as the comprehensive spending review reaches its final stages. There is good and bad in the record. On the good side, applications from school-leavers are holding up across all social groups despite the introduction of fees and abolition of grants. Also on the good side, there is a bit more money than the Conservatives planned: enough to keep per capita cuts in England to 1 per cent instead of 3.5 per cent, though Scotland still fares badly.

On the bad side, mature students seem to be being deterred by fees and the loss of grants. Government and university employers are determined to hold down pay increases to the level of inflation (if that). Universities and colleges are about to have their power to raise extra money through higher fees for home and overseas students curtailed by the Teaching and Higher Education Bill and the Asian economic crisis respectively.

So what is there to play for at this critical time? First a bit of extra cash on the teaching side to avert outright revolt. Under pressure ministers have stuck doggedly to their mantra that savings resulting from fees will go to "higher and further education": they can hardly cut out higher education altogether.

But research is the real pressure point. Here vital decisions are often left until late because the sums involved are relatively small and it may be possible to spook the architects of cool Britannia to some effect.

In the United States, the National Science Foundation is thinking how to spend a 10 per cent budget increase. Here, MPs have concluded (THES, April 3) that a minimum Pounds 400 million down payment is needed just to keep basic research infrastructure in working order. One of the lessons from this conjunction is that research spending follows economic success as well as helping create it. The falling unemployment that is keeping Bill Clinton popular with the United States voters means freer public finances, and science has won the argument for a share of the new money. The British economy is, the government says, in good shape. The same generosity should result.

If it does not we shall rapidly relearn another lesson: when the Americans expand research they come shopping in Britain for talent. Furthermore the Japanese, Koreans and French are also in the market. Rapid investment in research infrastructure is needed both to improve conditions and to convince people that the government values what they do.

Save British Science - a lobby group whose message is repetitive but which is now finding mainstream support - has called for a doubling of science spending by 2008, which would mean a 7 per cent annual increase in real terms. This may seem ambitious, but would still only put the United Kingdom into the middle rather than the top of the civil research and development league.

This is on top of the House of Commons science and technology committee's demand (endorsing the Dearing report) for Pounds 400 million for infrastructure. Some of this money must come from the government. If it will not invest in British research why should anyone else? But other customers are going to have to pay too. The research charities have always held out against paying the full direct and indirect costs of their research. Now they will have to start doing so, as will companies, government departments and other funders.

Dunning the customers may appeal to the Treasury but it will produce new demands and stresses. Customers will only pay if the quality is high. This is bound to accelerate the breakaway of a research-orientated league. It could also add to the already onerous load of inspection to ensure costings are fair. The charities are already starting to draw a fine line between the "indirect" costs of research and its full "economic" cost, a potential minefield if ever there was one. The changes that are coming will mean complex negotiations and will call for more not fewer university administrators.

In the final weeks before the end of the comprehensive spending review universities need to enlist all the friends they can to make it more trouble than it is worth for the Treasury to deny research the few hundred million a year extra it needs. Foremost among those friends should be the the captains of industry who complain that grubbing about for funds and coping with poor equipment is eroding research in British universities, and who seem to be the only people whose opinions Tony Blair and Gordon Brown respect. They need the tax breaks. Universities need the infrastructure.

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