Wellcome sidesteps lab report

May 23, 1997

THE WELLCOME Trust will not endorse a report backed by all the major research funding bodies calling for urgent action to deal with the "chronic" state of many university laboratories.

The report comes from a high-powered forum chaired by Sir Colin Campbell, vice chancellor of Nottingham University, which was set up last year. It included representatives of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the medical research charities, the British pharmaceutical industry and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The Office of Science and Technology was also consulted.

The evidence, which has been given to the Dearing inquiry into higher education, says the big increase in the volume of university research in recent years has not been matched by increased support for laboratory infrastructure. The report says: "The inevitable conclusion must be drawn that research is either subsidised from non-research funds or that the infrastructure is under pressure from the lack of contribution to indirect costs - or more likely a combination of the two."

Wellcome supports many aspects of the report, particularly its call for greater transparency and accountability in the allocation of research money by funding agencies, and its use by institutions. The trust fears, however, that the report may undermine its policy that universities should bear responsibility for the overheads of work it funds.

The report does not explicitly call upon the trust to change this policy but David Gordon, a programme director at Wellcome said: "The trust is concerned to ensure that a paper like this, which contains many nuances and phrases, does not cause problems in the future. There is a slight sensation that the trust is being rushed into agreeing to this."

Dr Gordon says that the trust is not required to support research in universities. It is more concerned about backing work that meets the body's charitable objectives: "When a research worker in a university applies to the trust for funds, the trust expects that the infrastructure and overhead costs of that research will be met from the university's own funds," he says.

The Association of Medical Research Charities is still consulting its members about the report and has yet to decide whether to endorse it.

According to the report, university research income from charities increased from Pounds 222 million in 1991/92 to Pounds 313 million in 1994/95. "The substantial increase of funding from charitable sources for the direct costs of research is strongly related to the health and life sciences but it has not been matched by an increase from any other source for the research infrastructure," it says.

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