Fund-split `threat to R&D’

MPs warned that twin-track system means universities could be starved of cash

By David Fowler

University departments could be starved of cash because of the way Government money is allocated, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council warned this week.

The EPSRC intended telling the House of Commons science and technology committee yesterday that block funding to university departments through the Higher Education Funding Councils is potentially at risk because it is not linked to specific projects.

One of the committee’s aims is to look at whether the roles of the funding and research councils should be combined.

Funding councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland give grants to departments on the basis of the quality of their research as a whole, through the Research Assessment Exercise. But research councils award funds to individuals for specific projects on the basis of peer review.

Professor Richard Brook, EPSRC chief executive, said that with the research council approach `it is easier when asking the Government for money because you can tie it to a specific objective’.

He said that for the funding councils, where there is an indirect link between the money and what it is spent on, the finance is harder to defend and vulnerable to cuts. Brook sees it as necessary to keep elements of both systems.

In general, funding and research councils money would be likely to go to the same departments. But the research councils’ links with individuals was needed `as a safeguard for when someone brilliant crops up in a department without a particularly good reputation’.

Similarly someone doing excellent research without needing any special equipment could be paid for from a funding council’s departmental award – though this is more likely in subjects such as mathematics.

Even if the funding councils’ role were handed over to EPSRC, there would need to be a mechanism to ensure such people were still funded, said Brook.