Government responds to Lords’ warnings on infrastructure
Following recent criticism for failing to make long-term plans for science, the UK government is now formulating a roadmap for its investment in research infrastructure. The move comes after the House of Lords issued a report stating that the UK’s world leading position in science was threatened by a failure to plan ahead.
The Lords select committee on science and technology report in November 2013 welcomed the promise to increase capital spending to £1.1 billion, but pointed out that larger facilities, such as the Diamond Light Source synchrotron, weren’t running at full capacity because of a failure to keep up with high running costs. The Lords urged the government to put together a long-term strategy and investment plan, and to set up a group to oversee progress.
In response, the science and universities minister David Willetts said that the government will act on these suggestions, and will lead a consultation with the research community to identify the UK’s priorities and plan sustainable capital investments up to the 2020s. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will also establish a ministerial advisory group on long-term strategy and capital investment, to be chaired by John O’Reilly, BIS’s director general for knowledge and innovation. ‘This group will advise ministers on the strategic roadmap for science and research infrastructure, and on the recommendations of the committee report,’ they say in their response.
John Krebs, who chairs the Lords science and technology committee, tells Chemistry World this is a step in the right direction. ‘This is exactly what we had hoped the government would do, and we look forward to seeing what the group comes up with,’ he says. But he also stresses that it was vital to make sure long-term plans are adequately funded. ‘At the moment the [funding] picture is good for the next few years, but that will need to be considered if we’re talking about a strategy that will cover many years, not just three or four.’
Graham Hutchings, a physical chemist who is president of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Faraday Division, says the plan to consult the wider scientific community on capital investment is ‘welcome news’. He agrees that any long-term strategy must be backed up by funding. ‘Investment in scientific infrastructure is about operational costs, as well as machines,’ he says. ‘Underpinning operational costs and expert technical support are crucial for the optimal use of infrastructure, but can only be provided when appropriately funded.’