Scientific Infrastructure - Science and Technology Committee Contents


SUMMARY




  



For many areas of research, scientific infrastructure underpins the UK's reputation for research excellence. From the Diamond Light Source, the UK's national synchrotron facility, to the ice-strengthened polar research ships used by the British Antarctic Survey, the UK has a range and quality of scientific infrastructure which enables it to compete globally across many disciplines. As knowledge advances, however, requirements change and UK researchers and industry need ongoing access to internationally competitive infrastructure in order to make new discoveries and stimulate innovation.




While the overall picture is a largely positive one, our inquiry has identified some shortcomings in the provision of scientific infrastructure which need to be addressed if the UK is to remain competitive in the long term. The key shortcomings which we identify are: the lack of a long term strategy and investment plan for scientific infrastructure; and a failure to provide adequately for operational costs at infrastructure facilities.




First, on planning, some useful work has been conducted in terms of mapping current and future infrastructure needs, but this does not constitute a prioritised, costed, long term strategy. The production of a strategy and an underpinning investment plan, looking 10 to 15 years ahead and beyond, is essential, especially as the recent Comprehensive Spending Review made a welcome long term commitment to the capital science budget. A strategy and an investment plan, setting clear priorities based on the budget available, which are reviewed and updated at clearly defined periods so that they are responsive and flexible, will help to ensure that resources are used to maximum effect and the UK's scientific infrastructure remains internationally competitive. To date, a series of ad hoc announcements has militated against long term planning. We therefore recommend that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' (BIS) Director General for Knowledge and Innovation (DGKI) is given responsibility for producing a strategy and an underpinning investment plan, and that he establishes a time-limited ad hoc advisory group, with independent expertise, to assist in its development.




Second, on operational costs, there is a marked lack of adequate provision for operational costs at scientific infrastructure facilities. This has meant that the UK has not been extracting maximum value from its assets. We recommend that the BIS DGKI, in developing a strategy and an investment plan, examines how capital investment and the funding for operational costs can be tied together in one sustainable package.




In addition to making recommendations in these two main areas, we also address a range of other issues. On the UK's involvement in European scientific infrastructure projects, we conclude that there are opportunities for the UK to be more engaged, take a more proactive role and establish a far clearer external face. On the role of Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs), which provide national capabilities and are often custodians of data, expertise and facilities, we are concerned that these public goods could be eroded by an over-emphasis on profit margins and an uncertainty over long term funding. Finally, we identify a need to do more to maximise economic benefits and ensure access to infrastructure for industry, as well as a need to improve monitoring and evaluation of the economic outputs of scientific infrastructure.



 
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