Urgent call to monitor R&D

December 4, 1998

Universities urgently need to get their research accounting in order so they can identify the full direct and indirect costs of research, a House of Commons committee reported this week.

In Science and the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Commons science and technology committee calls for common, robust and transparent accounting procedures to be adopted by all universities within the next 12 months.

The committee, which says it is "concerned by a seeming lack of urgency", believes this is essential before the full indirect costs of research - including provision for the continual maintenance of infrastructure - can be passed on to research funders, such as the research councils and charities.

It sees such a move as necessary if university research infrastructure is not to run down again and recommends - as it did in the run-up to the CSR - that government makes provision in future science budget allocations for the research councils to pay the full indirect costs of the research they fund. They currently pay just 46 per cent of indirect costs.

"If steps are not taken shortly to ensure ongoing provision for investment in infrastructure then further capital injections the size of the joint infrastructure fund will be required in future years," the committee warns.

"Universities have fallen behind in maintaining infrastructure," said committee member Nigel Beard. "These costs should not be neglected again or in six or seven years we move back into the same position of derelict infrastructure. You don't want universities just eating their seedcorn and going downhill."

The committee notes that funding arrangements for university research are being investigated by the director general of the research councils. That review is a "high priority", says the committee , which also calls for a funding council study to identify good practice and offer guidance on costing and pricing in higher education institutes to be completed in 12 months, rather than the planned three years.

While welcoming extra money for science, the committee notes that research budgets of other government departments may suffer. Though most departments have yet to make announcements on science activities for the next three years, the committee says "indications from other departments do not look so positive".

It says the fact that the United Kingdom industry does not compare favourably with international competitors in terms of total investment in research and innovation is of grave concern.

"There is a need for industry to commit greater resources to converting the outputs of the science base into innovative products and processes," says the committee.

It urges the government to ensure the science budget's emphasis on wealth creation is not translated into a cut in public support of blue-skies research.

Launching the report, committee chairman, Michael Clark, said he was not worried by the bias of money towards the biological sciences. "Every science has its day," he said. "You take your time to be centre forward, but others kick the ball to centre forward. They all go together to score the goal."

* The government response to the committee's report on British Biotech was expected this week.

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