The Royal Society this week urged the Government to halt further expansion of a multimillion pound research initiative until the quality of the work already funded is established.
Launched in 1994/95, the Realising Our Potential Award scheme aims to boost university/industry collaboration and has had Pounds 90 million pumped into it. In its review of the initiative, the society says that further growth at this stage would be "unjustified". It adds: "Attracting about 9 per cent of the total research grant funding from the science budget, the scheme may already have reached, if not exceeded, its optimum long-term maximum size."
The review, initiated because of concern in the science community about the philosophy and operation of the programme, took evidence from research councils, academics, industrialists and the director general of research councils, Sir John Cadogan.
It says industrialists are broadly supportive of the scheme's aims but feel that it will have little impact on the volume of industry-university collaborations.
Sir Richard Sykes, deputy chairman and chief executive of Glaxo Wellcome, told the review team that "there is likely to be little scope for further improvement in the number of collaborations between pharmaceutical firms and academia as they are already at a high level".
The society says the Ropa scheme had been presented by the Office of Science and Technology as a means of supporting "blue skies" work, especially speculative or unorthodox proposals that might lose out in the usual peer review process.
The society says the scheme's success cannot be measured until results of Ropa-funded projects are known, but adds: "The prima facie evidence suggests that only a small proportion of those projects are speculative fundamental research". The OST does not regard a high degree of originality as a prerequisite and the society points out that "this relaxation of the blue skies criterion reduces the strength of the initial scientific distinction between Ropas and the more traditional routes of responsive mode funding".
It says that an independent evaluation of work funded by Ropas is "essential to allay the fear that work of second-rate quality has been supported by the Ropa scheme".