Headlines: April 7th, 2003

A policy forum is warning that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on British science will be wasted unless there is serious reform of the way the money is managed.In a report produced by the Centre for Policy Studies, Stuart Lyons says the UK has been at the forefront of world scientific research, but is now lagging behind and Britain’s celebrated scientists are being betrayed by deep-rooted mismanagement. The document, ‘Harnessing Our Genius’ says the Department of Trade and Industry’s Science Budget has risen from 1.6 billion pounds in 1997 to 2 billion this year, making it the DTI’s largest operational budget. It is set to rise still further to almost 3 billion pounds in 2005-06.

Stuart Lyons says the increase in expenditure may or may not be justified – but the way the funds are managed is not. “There is no detailed analysis of how money is applied, whether it is applied successfully and whether the planned increases are properly directed. Too many top quality grant proposals are sacrificed through mismanagement,” he writes.

The Medical Research Council has been criticised by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee for causing resentment among and inconvenience to the research community it is meant to be supporting but Lyons finds that such problems are common throughout Britain’s scientific establishment.

“The six grant-awarding Research Councils all suffer from antiquated working practices. The distinctions between strategy, governance and management are blurred. Standards of financial reporting in the Research Councils are generally inadequate, if not abysmal,” he says.

He points to the American National Science Foundation (NSF) as a far more effective organisation, having greater independence, efficiency, sense of purpose and accountability and making a broader contribution to the community.

He concludes that as well as sponsoring “blue skies” research, management of Britain’s science should more vigorously address a number of issues – the release of intellectual property rights, the stimulation of commercial collaboration and the development of more productive relationships between research professionals and the venture capital market.