The report, entitled Scientific Infrastructure, also finds that the UK is missing out on vital research opportunities because large scale scientific machinery is standing idle.
The UK boasts some of the most advanced large scale scientific infrastructure in Europe, ranging from the multimillion pound Diamond Light Source – a facility which generates light of exceptional brightness and quality enabling investigation of the structure and function of materials - to ice-strengthened polar research ships, to state-of-the-art supercomputers. Access to scientific infrastructure is important to UK industry and helps to stimulate economic growth. It also supports breakthrough research in fields from medical science to engineering.
While the report is broadly positive about the state of scientific infrastructure in the UK, the Committee warns that a lack of a clear long term strategy and investment plan, with a clear commitment to engagement with international projects, is impairing the UK’s ability to remain internationally competitive over the long term.
The Committee also found a ‘damaging disconnect’ between capital investment and funding for operational costs, i.e. that building important large scale infrastructure has been budgeted for, but the costs to keep it running have not.
One example cited in the report is the ISIS centre in Oxfordshire, a world-leading base for neutron research. ISIS cost £50 million to build, and has recently doubled in size through a government-funded £145 million investment. Despite this, witnesses told the Committee that there was not the budget available to run the site at full capacity, and that it was only being used to two thirds of its potential. This resulted in hundreds of potential experiments not happening, industrial projects losing out and a missed opportunity for UK research.
The Committee recommends that the Government reviews the current situation to make sure that capital investment and operational costs are tied together in one sustainable package.
Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Lord Krebs, said:
“The UK has an enviable reputation internationally for the range and quality of its large scale scientific facilities. But without a solid long-term strategy in place to maintain, and make the most of, its infrastructure this could all be lost. Our report calls on the UK government to think for the long term – the lack of a strategy and an investment plan risks the UK’s place at the forefront of scientific research.”
“Also we are concerned about the “batteries not included” syndrome – very expensive, large scale scientific equipment has been built, but there is not enough money to keep it running. This lack of provision for operational costs has seen facilities not being used to a maximum capacity, with severe research consequences.”
The Committee included within its definition of infrastructure not only large and mid-range facilities, but also data, expertise and national capabilities such as those in Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs), for example, the British Geological Survey and the Institute for Animal Health. On PSREs, the Committee expresses concern that the ability of PSREs and National Laboratories to deliver national objectives is being eroded by underfunding.