Where is research going?

November 14, 1997

Universities may lose their dominant position as centres for UK research, a research council head has warned.

John Krebs, chief executive of the Natural Environmental Research Council, told a meeting that 62 per cent of UK research is done in universities, but this may not last.

He said that although he hoped universities would maintain their dominance, tuition fees would tend to put people off doing PhDs.

It was also worrying that the recent Department for Education and Employment vision statement on lifelong learning did not mention research.

"I think there is a very big question as to where research is going to be done in the future," he said.

Sir Aaron Klug, president of the , Royal Society, told the meeting on the future of university research after Dearing, organised by science journal Nature, that industry was not making "idle threats" when it said it would remove its funding from UK universities.

He added that the situation was urgent. "True creation seems to come out of the blue. But it does not. It comes out of a well funded environment."

The need to increase the research community's profile and the importance of research, particularly in politicians' eyes, were repeatedly stressed.

Mark Ferguson, head of biology at Manchester University, pointed to the US example where vice-chancellors and industry together lobbied individual congress members, and he urged scientists to do something to increase research's profile.

Professor Krebs added that the research community needed to project a harmonious message if it were to persuade government of its importance.

The need for universities to cost research properly and charge overheads, particularly for industry and government funded research, were stressed.

But Professor Krebs warned that if his council was forced to pay more indirect costs without additional money, success rates for grants would drop to 13 per cent with many universities losing out.

Brian Fender, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England which provides the other arm of dual support, warned against "turf wars".

He said: "We are trying to sing the same song", adding that universities should see technology transfer and consultancy as core activities, alongside teaching and research.

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