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Peers pin down BIS on ‘ad-hoc’ capital funding

The government's recent capital investment in the science minister's eight great technologies has been poorly tracked and comes at the expense of a long-term plan for science infrastructure, a report has said.

In a report on science infrastructure on 21 November, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee criticises the government’s favouring of individual capital projects and announcements over a long-term strategy for capital: “To date, a series of ad hoc announcements has militated against long-term planning…It is unclear whether the eight great technologies will continue to provide a focus for investment after [2014-15] or whether other criteria will be used to allocate capital funding.”

The committee also says that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has failed to provide enough details on its capital spending on the eight great technologies singled out by David Willetts and Chancellor George Osborne. "We couldn’t get to the bottom of the detail of how that’s being spent,” committee chairman John Krebs told Research Fortnight.

“We weren’t quite convinced that BIS could tell us exactly how the money is being invested,” says Krebs. “They may not have worked that out yet. But we should be able to track what the money is being spent on, who made the decisions and what the impact has been."

The report notes the eight great technologies are to receive a dedicated £600 million in support. The BIS figures state that for the eight great technologies, £484m has so far been allocated to “various new  projects” for 2012-15 as science and research capital, £25m has gone to the space technology programme and £95m to innovation capital projects.

The committee recommends that John O’Reilly, director-general for knowledge and innovation at BIS, should produce a “long-term strategy and underpinning investment plan for scientific infrastructure”. The report argues that this should: set out funding priorities over 10 to 15 years; include an indicative plan over an even longer term; and review the Large Facilities Steering Group, which comprises representatives from the research councils and the Wellcome Trust.

The steering group oversees the management and funding of large-scale facilities, such as the Isis neutron source. The chairman of the Isis user group previously told Research Fortnight that the group was “not fit for purpose”. Today, Swapan Chattopadhyay, director of the Cockcroft Institute of Accelerator Science and Technology, said that “Facilities that aspire to integrate academia, industry and national infrastructures should have proper ownership by a different governance model." He added that the governance models of UK facilities are “really lacking” and that this is “handicapping delivery”.

Krebs says the committee did not receive enough evidence to form a dedicated and detailed recommendation on the future of the steering group, but that it should be part of O’Reilly’s review. According to the Lords report, O’Reilly should be helped in his review and strategy by an advisory group, comprising research council chief executives, directors of publicly funded research establishments, industry representatives and independent scientists, especially those with experience of using science facilities overseas. The strategy should be produced within a year of the group’s first meeting, the report recommends.

The report also states that the committee is “concerned that the ability of [publicly funded research establishments] and the national laboratories to deliver national objectives is being eroded by underfunding and a wide variety of funding and governance models”. It recommends that “BIS ministers ensure that the funding and governance mechanisms in place effectively protect the public goods generated by these institutions”.

Krebs said that while the committee has no view on governance models at the moment, the government needs to ensure that the role of publicly funded research establishments as custodians of public research data is not lost if they are “forced to do purely commercial work”.

The report also raises concerns over the number of facilities standing idle due to a lack of funding for operational costs. "The consequences of this are tangible and very concerning, in terms of reduced scientific output—the loss of experiments and publications—and the consequential decline in competitiveness." It also laments the fact that while the government funded the high-performance computer centre at Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus near Manchester, "insufficient provision was made for the operational costs".