Scientific pressure group warns against over concentration of research infrastructure

January 9, 2003

Brussels, 6 January 2003

In its response to a UK government consultation paper on higher education, the 'save British science society' (SBS), a UK based pressure group, has warned against excessive integration of research infrastructures.

The document, published on 30 December 2002, outlines the SBS's views on a range of issues covered by the consultation paper, such as research, infrastructures and accountability. The SBS is supported by 1,500 individual members and some 70 institutional members, including universities, industrial companies and learned societies.

Under the capital infrastructure heading, the society describes the greater concentration of research facilities as being unavoidable in many instances, but warns that 'there must always be opportunities for lone researchers with maverick ideas that do not fit into the strategy and plans of some larger, complex group.'

In certain situations, the SBS states that it would welcome a greater pooling of resources, for example giving students and researchers in less well-funded institutions access to under-utilised equipment in better funded ones. Problems arise, however, because: '[...] almost all of the government funding mechanisms at the moment encourage competitiveness among institutions rather than collaboration,' it asserts.

On the subject of university research, the government consultation asks whether policies are needed to enable the best researchers to spend more time researching, and whether certain institutions should specialise in research while others focus on teaching.

In answering the first point, the response states that the best scientists could focus more on research if their administrative workload was reduced and their pay increased so that they do not feel the need to perform private consultancy to supplement their income.

On the subject of universities focussing on either research or teaching, the SBS insists that good teaching is informed by good research, with teachers performing best in an atmosphere of discovery. They go on to state that: 'Even the most exalted of world-class universities in the USA would find it incomprehensible that their best researchers should not also teach.'

On the question of public research funding, the consultation asks whether the current level of investment in the UK is sufficient to retain global competitiveness. Not in the long term, says the SBS, asserting that problems of capital infrastructures turned out to be larger than anyone realised, and that whilst recent funding initiatives have been welcome, they have not addressed the underlying backlog.

Under the same heading, the society calls for the payment of all overheads associated with carrying out research projects. The document uses the example of the EU framework programmes for research, stating that only 20 per cent of the total direct costs can be allocated for indirect expenses such as lighting, heating and basic infrastructure.

In one of the final sections of the document, the SBS responds to the question of whether taxpayers receive a good return on their investment in research. It states that: 'It is difficult to imagine that there is any other public expenditure that is as heavily accounted as university research expenditure.'

Statistics from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development are included, which show that the annual return on taxpayers' money invested in higher education is 13.6 per cent for women and 15.2 per cent for men. 'Put simply,' the document states 'there can be no question about it - the taxpayer is getting exceptional value for money from the investment made in the universities.'

To download a PDF version of the SBS response, please consult the following web address: http://www.savebritishscience.org.uk/tex ts/documents/2002/SBS0222.pdf

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2001

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