Some research centres are more equal than others.
From a distance, it sounds like an event worth celebrating. At Westminster on 4 May, British government officials and scientists gathered to toast the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. In its first five years, the Norwich-based centre has brought together social and natural scientists and produced internationally respected work on the options that exist for responding to climate change. The gathering marked the award of another three years of support for the centre.
But behind the scenes, things aren't quite as rosy as they appear. One of Britain's more successful interdisciplinary research centres, the Tyndall centre is in fact facing a cut of some 15% in the real value of its income. Its research programmes will be reduced in scale and its PhD studentship programme abandoned. It also faces an uncertain future when current funding expires in 2009.
The Tyndall centre is a victim of two sets of circumstances that are squeezing permanent research centres of its type. Until last year, the Treasury made special provision to protect the Tyndall centre's income. When that funding expired, the three research councils that oversee the centre, led by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), brought in outside experts to help decide what should happen next. But staff at the Tyndall feel that they lost out in this review because their work cuts across the expertise of the councils and the reviewers.
Additionally, all UK research agencies are under pressure to divert funding from permanent centres (such as the Tyndall) to the more flexible and efficient mechanism of individual investigator grants. In the past year, in various different circumstances, the National Institute for Medical Research (run by the Medical Research Council), the NERC's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Tyndall centre and the John Innes Centre, a plant-science institute also based in Norwich, have all come under pressure from this general preference.
The emphasis on individual grants is generally a good thing. But it can be taken too far: unlike, say, France or the United States, Britain has already shut down its more inefficient government laboratories. It needs to retain some permanent research centres in order to support important government functions, such as managing public health and the environment.
The NERC would argue that the Tyndall centre has already done a large part of its job by helping to build interdisciplinary research capacity. After eight years, it might make sense to fund further work through competitive grants; in Britain, these can be administered by more than one research council to support genuinely interdisciplinary projects. The NERC would also argue that its funding decisions have been reached after review of the Tyndall centre's work by independent experts.
However, the government badly needs the kind of research in which the Tyndall centre excels to help it make decisions about climate change. The centre's long-term survival would guarantee that this work keeps getting done. As well as maintaining the flow of useful reports, it would also provide a home for young researchers who wish to specialize in such interdisciplinary work but might struggle to find a career path in an atmospheric-physics or economics department.
Similar arguments apply at the UK Energy Research Centre, based in London, another cross-council project, which will see its own pot of dedicated funding expire in 2009. Its fate will largely rest on independent peer review. If it scores as highly as the Tyndall centre, the government should make special provision for both to guarantee their respective futures.