BBSRC institutes lose ‘core’ funding

But Rothamsted and others back programme grants
By Miriam Frankel and Laura Hood
Research Fortnight
30-05-2012

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has dramatically revised the way it funds its eight institutes and from now on requires them to identify the impact of their work in grant applications.

Institutes will no longer receive core funding and will now get their funding through programme grants awarded according to BBSRC’s strategic priority areas. They will also receive funding through national capability awards for facilities and capacity building. A new, specific funding stream will support knowledge transfer, public engagement and commercialisation.

The council announced a three-year funding allocation of £250 million for its eight research institutes last week, a settlement that is likely to amount to a small overall funding reduction in cash terms for the institutes. However, the BBSRC claims that comparisons with past settlements are difficult because the council has changed how it calculates its funding.

The £250m settlement includes £38m for the Institute of Animal Health in Pirbright, Surrey; £37m for the Babraham Institute in Cambridge; £42m for the John Innes Centre in Norwich; and £41m for Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. The funding also includes £7m for universities working with the institutes.

These grants are for five-year programmes, however, they will only cover the first three years. Funding for the remaining two years will be awarded after the next spending review.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, Alf Game, acting research director of the BBSRC, said that while none of the eight institutes will see any major changes to their income, there will be a loss of some funding. “I think the overall picture, when you take into account indexation and all the rest of it, is that it’s probably a small reduction in cash terms of maybe around 5 per cent or something compared with last year,” he says.

When applying for the new grants, the institutes need to explain how their work aligns with BBSRC strategic priorities. In addition, they have for the first time been asked to submit statements of future impact and also to describe the impact of their work over the previous five years.

Game says the new assessment process—and the focus on impact—is not primarily policy-driven but more a reflection of the way science is being done in the institutes. For example, he says, there is less working with model organisms, and more solving real problems in the relevant organisms.

Research Fortnight spoke with three of the largest institutes and found them ready to comply. “In terms of our philosophy, this has helped establish the impact agenda,” says Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre. “I think [the change in funding allocation] is part of our public accountability…the danger of the old type of core funding was that it wasn’t that clear what the institutes were doing.”

Maurice Moloney, director and chief executive of Rothamsted Research, says that his institute is very pleased with its settlement. Maloney says Rothamsted got everything it asked for plus extra to cover its new status, as of October 2011, as an institute funded by, but not “owned” by the BBSRC.

Moloney also says the BBSRC is “pushing at an open door” with its impact requirements. “What the BBSRC is saying, and this is coming from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is if we are going to spend the kind of money that we do on R&D, we want to see definitive outcomes and real impact of the discovery science that takes place,” he says. “So we’re not some ivory-tower organisation; we have to embed, throughout the organisation, the idea that we are here to have an impact and change how things are done in agriculture and food. I wouldn’t say it’s a change but it’s a re-emphasis to remind us that money is being spent and there will be accounting of how well we use our investment.”

Rothamsted is pursuing fewer scientific areas than before but more people are working on strategically important areas, he adds.

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