UK science at risk as labs fall to pieces

April 5, 2002

University laboratories are falling apart as a result of a £3 billion maintenance backlog, according to a study carried out for the Office of Science and Technology.

The report, by J. M. Consulting, says that government infrastructure schemes worth £2 billion are largely ineffective. Instead of refurbishing ageing buildings and providing basic equipment, much of the money goes on new initiatives. Borrowing by English universities is predicted to be £2.1 billion by 2004, partly to meet growing maintenance costs.

The JMC study calls for £4 billion in investment and insists that universities end the "low-cost culture" that has undermined research.

Universities UK policy director Tony Bruce said this week it was clear that research funding would have to be addressed if the UK was to maintain a competitive, knowledge-based economy. Richard Joyner, chairman of pressure group Save British Science, said: "The problems will be slow, expensive and tricky to sort out. Failure to do this will blunt the country's future economic competitiveness."

Scientists at University College London's bioscience department, which features in the study, almost walked out of their decaying laboratory this week as temperatures soared in the poorly ventilated basement. UCL's department of anatomy and developmental biology gained a 5* rating in the last research assessment exercise but most of its laboratories are in prewar buildings assessed in the survey as cramped, poorly lit and often unfit for their intended purpose. Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine, said a complete refurbishment was needed. "The old labs are way below the standard you would expect of a top department," he said.

At another university in the report, the cold has stopped scientists working in a building with poor insulation, leaks, asbestos and a ceiling that has been declared a fire hazard.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has estimated that 32 per cent of university buildings need major repairs within three years and 4 per cent are inoperable.

The survey, Study of Science Research Infrastructure , is part of the government's transparency review and will feed into July's spending review. The Treasury is also studying the Roberts' review of research careers, due to be published next week and expected to call for more investment in science careers.

The survey describes the joint infrastructure fund as "not good value for money". It says that because institutions had to match JIF funds with cash from other sources, other areas in the institution suffered. While JIF "catapulted forward" research in some fields, refurbishment and maintenance bids were not successful. The cost of bidding was high and one university that bid for £51 million received less than £400,000 - an amount far outstripped by the cost of applying.

"JIF also had an unfortunate effect on the morale of the sector in terms of equity. There was a feeling that the scheme was put together without adequate planning," the survey says.

The science research infrastructure fund is more successful at addressing backlog maintenance, according to the survey. But the overall impact of the two funds is "small". Despite being "the biggest injections of higher education funding in a decade", the two funds "totalled a £2 billion spend, on a £34 billion estate." This probably benefited only 5 per cent of institutional infrastructure.

The report makes four recommendations:

* Universities must take responsibility for the maintenance of their asset base

* The government should provide a capital funding scheme to address the £3.2 billion backlog in investment

* The government should improve the recurrent funding of research so that institutions can cover its full cost

* There should be a project-based scheme of £100 million to £200 million a year.

Main findings of survey

* £2.7 billion needed for buildings, plant, services, IT networks and library resources

* £500 million needed for minimal level of equipment and facilities, without which "institutions reduce their ability to attract external income and research staff"

* £1 billion for advanced level research. Post-SRIF and JIF, there remain nationally important projects that need funding. "This is partly developmental as well as remedial, but is an essential condition of remaining competitive in international science."

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