HIGHER education minister Baroness Blackstone admitted to the House of Commons science and technology committee last week that at times she felt "ashamed" of the equipment in university science departments.
Her comment reflects the frustration of science and research supporters as they await the summer conclusion of the government's comprehensive spending review.
The sense of malaise is palpable. Research councils complain that they have to make "impossible" decisions about which projects to fund and the funding gaps identified by Sir Ron Dearing in his inquiry, such as the Pounds 500 million needed over the next five years to replace outdated equipment, continue to gape.
Commissioned last June, the review is an assessment of public spending. Each department of state is looking at its spending and will report to the Treasury's public expenditure committee chaired by chancellor Gordon Brown.
It will be for that committee to decide the pattern of future spending - whether to increase money for science research and university infrastructure through savings in other areas, or to channel more money into other departments, such as health.
Budgets for 1998-99 will be unaffected by the review and remain for the most part, as the government promised, at levels set by the Tories last year. Rather, it is believed, changes will be introduced gradually from 1999/2000 so that by the end of this Parliament, government is spending money in the way it feels most appropriate.
Sir John Cadogan, head of the research councils, is leading the "nuts and bolts" review of Office of Science and Technology spending. The OST, which is part of the Department of Trade and Industry, funds organisations such as the research councils and the Royal Society, which support researchers in their own institutes and provide grants for university researchers.
Sir John chairs a committee that includes representatives of the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. It is looking at how money is spent within the OST and at the structures through which funding is channelled. According to a source close to the committee: "The way the argument is being put together is that science is an underpinning activity of value beyond research and education. The work done in research councils is of value to other government departments. Science is being presented as an across- Whitehall activity."
The committee is due to submit its case for science to Margaret Beckett, the president of the board of trade, within a month or so. It is unclear at this stage whether the case for science will be included in DTI's main submission, or whether Mrs Beckett will pass on two envelopes to the Treasury.
On top of this, Sir Robert May, the government's chief scientific adviser, is taking a trans-departmental overview of Whitehall's Pounds 6 billion spend on science, research and development. This includes the contribution to university research from the Department for Education and Employment (made through the higher education funding councils), as well as scientific research undertaken in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, Environment and the Regions and the Ministry of Defence.
He is being helped in the task by the chief scientists in each government department and he will report directly to the Cabinet.
Sir Robert told The THES that he would not necessarily be asking for more money. "I think there are areas where we should invest more," he said. "But I am not simply asking for more. It is a very sensible thing for the government to look at spending like this from the base upwards rather than assuming what is being done is the best thing. But it does take time."
But hopes are already high that universities and OST research institutes will benefit from adjustments in the budget.
One top-ranking OST employee said: "I would be very surprised if there was not a significant uplift for science after the review, if only to stop major embarrassment. The science spend increased under the Tories. If it turned down as soon as the Labour government came in, it would be very bad politically."
It is rumoured that Sir John will be looking for an extra Pounds 250 million for science by the end of the Parliament. Part of this would most probably be tied to schemes, such as the Joint Research Equipment Initiative, which bring in private money alongside public funds. It is also rumoured that he may ask for Pounds 100 million to increase the overheads research councils pay when supporting university research.
WHAT SCIENTISTS WANT
John Mulvey, head of Save British Science, has a wish-list:
The government must provide the Pounds 110 million estimated for research councils to pay the indirect costs of their research.
The backlog of Pounds 500 million needed for equipment for leading research laboratories must be cleared.
Pounds 400 million is needed for new equipment for teaching.
A commitment, over the next three or four years, to bring the government public sector support for research in universities up to internationally competitive levels. To get somewhere near the other G7 countries, it would need at least Pounds 300 million more each year.