The temptation to eliminate Britain's ‘dual support system’ for university research should be resisted.
In about four weeks' time, British scientists will discover just how deep is the commitment of the Labour government to a flourishing science base. That is when it is due to announce the outcome of its Comprehensive Spending Review, an exercise which, it is now clear, will set the boundaries of public spending over the next three years. There are grounds for optimism. A pre-election commitment to place science “at the heart of government” remains on ministers' lips. Increased spending on research would lie well with the often-repeated promise by Prime Minister Tony Blair that his top spending priority, after health and education, is investment for the future. Chancellor Gordon Brown has promised a slight relaxation in overall spending constraints. And officials from the Office of Science and Technology are reported to have presented a comprehensively documented case for spending an extra £500 million a year on the science base.
But there is a cloud on the horizon which many thought had dissipated, but which reappeared last week. It took the form of reports that Treasury officials are once again canvassing reactions to the proposal for a substantial transfer of public research funds from the four regional university funding councils to the research councils. The apparent logic behind this proposal is clear: research councils are better placed to target research funding to those groups in universities able to use them most productively.
But to follow it would be a recipe for short-term management of university departments in efforts to secure funds at the expense of longer-term research planning. The ‘dual support system’ may not be ideal, and one should require, as the Dearing committee proposed last year, that research councils pay a fairer proportion of the costs of the research they sponsor. But to abolish the system will undermine, not strengthen, the UK's research base.