Vice-chancellors have asked researchers to update a study of the relationship between basic research and economic performance to underpin their case for more cash.
The 1996 study, commissioned by the Treasury from Sussex University's Science Policy Research Unit, found virtually all previous econometric surveys had concluded there was a comparatively high rate of return for the economy on basic research.
But the Sussex researchers felt previous methods used to measure this relationship were "beset with measurement difficulties and conceptual problems". They over-emphasised the importance of the ability of basic research to generate useful new information.
Their report said: "The traditional justification for public funding of basic research needs to be expanded. In addition to the 'public good' view of science as a source of useful information, we also need to take into account the other forms of economic benefit from basic research."
Such a rationale has yet to be developed, it added, but its components are likely to include a view of basic research as a source of new interactions, networks and technology options; a means to generate new skills, especially tacit skills and problem-solving abilities; and as an entry ticket to international networks of experts and information.
The report concluded basic research had six main forms of economic benefit:
As a source of useful new information
New instrumentation and methodologies created by researchers
Skills developed by those engaging in research
Access to networks of experts and information
Developing problem-solving for industry
Creating "spin-off" companies.
But it warned that the relative importance of these different forms of benefit varied according to the scientific field, technology and industry. As a result, "no simple model of the nature of the economic benefits from basic research is possible".
A new report commissioned by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals based on 1996-97, shows that one in 40 Scottish jobs is created by the higher education sector.
Universities and colleges brought Pounds 291 million into Scotland from elsewhere in the UK and their overseas export earnings more than doubled between 1994 and 1997, from Pounds 69 million to Pounds 147 million. The largest single item of overseas income was Pounds 63 million from student fees.