Sweet music for bio brigade

December 4, 1998

Biological sciences look healthy with a big funding boost and new buildings, writes Julia Hinde

With the comprehensive spending review over, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council can look towards the new millennium, or the next three years at least, with considerable optimism and financial security.

The science base won a 15 per cent increase in funding, the highest of any departmental budget, after the Office of Science and Technology convinced the government of the importance of basic science in underpinning objectives such as wealth creation, competitiveness and quality of life.

The government's response, an extra Pounds 1.4 billion for the science base over the next three years, was sweet music to the Medical Research Council and the BBSRC, with the latter winning a 12 per cent cash increase, amounting to an extra Pounds 52 million by 2001-02.

On top of this, at least Pounds 300 million in new buildings and laboratory equipment is set to pour into university biomedical and biological science departments over the next three years.

A government partnership with the Wellcome Trust means that figure could soar considerably higher (there is Pounds 600 million in the Joint Infrastructure Fund), and money has already been allocated for a new Synchrotron Source, essential for biologists keen to unravel the structure of proteins discovered as the human genome project progresses.

The favourable CSR allocation gives the BBSRC, and some of the other research councils, new money to spend on research.

"It's given us leeway," explains Ray Baker, chief executive of the BBSRC. "Because it's a three-year plan, it means you can lay down your objectives with confidence and be judged on how you do."

The government has already suggested how it may judge the science base, with a line in the CSR urging at least 50 per cent more start up companies every year.

Trade and industry secretary Peter Mandelson, in the run-up to this month's Competitiveness white paper, has also stressed the need for the UK to exploit its knowledge, science and technology base, to turn scientific discovery into scientific enterprise, one message being heeded by the BBSRC as it looks to the future (see box).

The BBSRC held its annual retreat at the end of last month to plan its future strategy. With its budget set to rise by 4 per cent in real terms to Pounds 208 million by 2001-02, it is expected to put more money into genomics research - a top government priority - and responsive-mode funding to support unsolicited proposals from academics.

But its priorities for the future are set to be influenced not just by the CSR, but also by its own portfolio review, which has involved a hard look at everything the council does.

The review, now being finalised, is thought to have identified key issues such as training, interdisciplinary science, equipment, bio- informatics and genomics, as well as areas of research importance, including food safety, diet and health, the science of ageing, microbial, plant and animal genomics and environmental biotechnology. These are set to be drawn together in a new BBSRC strategic plan, to be published in the new year.

As a result, new programmes and initiatives are expected to be announced over the next few months, including funding for up to three new university-based centres for structural biology, in addition to the two already established at York University and jointly in London, at Birkbeck and University College.

The council will also be working closely with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which was given Pounds 60 million in the CSR specifically to support programmes that underpin those of the BBSRC, MRC and the Natural Environment Research Council.

As the BBSRC considers its future science direction and funding strategy, there are considerations too of where research is undertaken, and training for researchers of the future.

As well as funding biological researchers in universities, the council also supports eight research institutes of its own, including the Institute of Food Research, which will merge its two centres this year in Norwich. Funding of these through competitive strategic grants is to the tune of Pounds 53.5 million, almost identical to the Pounds 53.2 million spent by BBSRC in 1997-98 on university responsive research grants.

The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food also contributes, through commissioned research, to the income of these institutes. However, a reduction in MAFF's budget following the CSR is expected to lead to cuts in its research budget of several million over the next three years.

With MAFF already having commitments to certain projects, there are concerns that research income available to institutes from MAFF could drop by Pounds 10 million.

With its allocation now increasing above inflation, BBSRC will have to decide whether to increase the institutes' grants by a similar proportion, particularly if their MAFF income is reduced, or whether to pump the extra income into responsive-mode funding as mentioned in its CSR objectives.

There is talk of limited increases in strategic grants, instead taking the opportunity of an increased budget to perhaps "widen access for institutes in a competitive way" by allowing researchers in institutes to bid for some responsive research grants. Such a move would increase competition for university researchers.

The council is concerned about whether it should be training more PhD students and whether they should be paid more. An increase earlier this year of a Pounds 1,000 in the minimum stipend means all government funded PhD students should now be on at least Pounds 6,455.

Professor Baker says "there is still further to go". "It's still no king's ransom," he says. "I think there is a strong feeling in our community that this should still be a priority for increase." However, he adds: "We will only move forward on this if we can get all the research councils to move together."

ENCOURAGING SCIENCE ENTREPRENEURS

The BBSRC plans to launch a new Pounds 250,000 competition to increase entrepreneurship and start-up companies in the biosciences.

The Bioscience Business Plan Competition will involve experts from the commercial world mentoring and training scientists who have potential business ideas. The scheme - which is likely to be launched in January - will be backed by Pounds 250,000 raised from charity and a pharmaceuticals company.

Professor Ray Baker says: "There is no doubt that innovation and entrepreneurship are very much key to the government's scientific agenda. The innovation group at BBSRC is trying hard to improve this with schemes such as Young Entrepreneurs and training in realising intellectual property."

Doug Yarrow, innovation group director, says there is a feeling that many university researchers still don't know how to exploit and commercialise their scientific ideas. "We want to be able to assist them, to allow them to network with the right people."

Scientists in the competition would have to write a business plan, with winners offered training and networking opportunities.

The scheme is expected to be open to university bioscience researchers and employees of BBSRC institutes. The BBSRC plans to pick about 20 ideas for development.

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