Early this year Sarah-Jane Stagg and I ventured to the heart of Belgravia to represent the Society at a meeting of the Biosciences Federation. The proceedings in these splendid surroundings were chaired by the President of the Federation, Professor Sir Tom Blundell, and were well attended, with representatives from a broad spectrum of the member societies.

The main item for discussion was FEC (full economic costing), an acronym which seems set to be second only to the RAE in terms of significance to the academic community. Sir Keith O’Nions from the Office of Science and Technology (OST) set the scene. In a carefully worded delivery, he put forward the Government’s financial proposals for supporting the development of the UK’s portfolio of world-class research for economic and public benefit, increasing business investment in research and development and addressing the ongoing (and in my view increasing) problems of manpower. The Government, he explained, has invested in science, although it must be said that its current (1.9% GDP) and projected (2.5% GDP) figures fall well below those of many of our competitors and also below the Lisbon target for the UK (3% GDP). It is certainly encouraging that increased investment in real terms is projected in the coming years. However, less encouragingly, the total volume of government-funded research is likely to remain unchanged. Why is this?

The government is rightly concerned with both the full economic cost of delivering research and the long-term sustainability of research activity – in other words, the cost of providing the infrastructure necessary for research to flourish as well as the direct costs of the project. As we know, our ability to carry out research has been seriously compromised as universities have neglected all but essential maintenance of laboratories and buildings in their struggle to balance their books. There has been some improvement recently as funding via the strategic research initiative fund (alias SRIF) has enabled at least some of us to benefit from laboratory refurbishment and, in some cases, even new buildings. However, while SRIF will continue in the next spending round, the funding stream is set to change. From the autumn this year, all universities will be required to calculate and include the full economic cost in all new grant proposals, i.e. the costs of delivering the work and maintaining an appropriate quality infrastructure.

To support this the OST will transfer funds to the research councils to support 80% of the FEC of all new grants they fund and there are plans for this to rise to 100% by the end of the next decade. Similar arrangements will apply to new government and NHS grants and universities will be expected to negotiate FEC on grants from industry and private businesses.

The position on charities, which fund a large proportion of biomedical research in the UK, has not been fully resolved. However, the government has pledged a sum of £92M per year to the pot of HEFCE funding to universities based on volume and quantity for infrastructure costs linked to grants financed by the Association of Medical Research Charities, for example those supported by the Wellcome Trust or the British Heart Foundation.

Rodney Eastwood from Imperial College London estimated that his college’s financial need for sustainability was some £40M per year. He is now working with other research-led universities to devise a costing tool (formula to you and me) to enable academics to calculate the FEC of all proposals. This is likely to be linked arithmetically to the manpower needed to do the work, including the time spent by the applicants.

Julia Goodfellow, the Chief Executive of the BBSRC confirmed that the total resource requested would be assessed in terms of both applicant and research assistant time and that this would almost certainly influence the ‘value for money ranking’ of proposals. In other word, the relatively high cost of a chunk of time from a senior professor might influence the thinking on the need for an additional research assistant or technician etc.

What are the downstream consequences of this to us, the researchers, and our institutions? John Enderby, a former Vice President of the Royal Society, welcomed the new model but expressed concern that the logistics of it would put still more pressure on the time available to academics for research. Clearly, we are in for a culture shock. However, if the process is driven mainly by formula, the costing of grant proposals should not be much more complex than it is at present, although the total might look worryingly high!

There is, however, a concern that in the scramble to secure these new funds, teaching will suffer. A big question also arises as to how these funds will be managed? Will there be external audit, with funds diverted to support this administrative activity? What will happen within institutions? The current system of overheads will disappear with this new scheme. Will institutions ensure that an equivalent amount is diverted from each grant directly to the Department cost centre, with perhaps some funds being devolved to the applicants’ group, as happens in at least some institutions now, or will new processes be developed? How will industry and other private enterprises view the change? It will certainly be more transparent than the current system of charging a percentage overhead but will the result be more palatable? Will it drive an internal market with some universities being able to carry out work at a considerably lower rate than others? The next few years will undoubtedly be interesting as the system comes into play.

With this debate ringing in our ears, we returned to the more routine business of the Federation. Keith Elliott told us of the valuable work the Education Committee is doing to promote science in schools and to disseminate information about careers in science for school leavers, undergraduates and postgraduates. The Animal Sciences Group, chaired originally by Nancy Rothwell and now by Clive Page, is clearly also doing excellent work, building upon the firm foundations laid by its predecessor, UK Life Sciences, and forming a focus for debate in the UK and a strong voice in Europe as new legislation is developed. A new committee, chaired by Peter Lumsden is dealing with matters relating to environmental sustainability – central to its discussion will be matters that concern all of us such as the progressive loss of key disciplines from our universities, curriculum matters and career structure (or rather the current lack of it) for young scientists.

All good stuff, I hear you say, but how much influence will the Biosciences Federation have? Many, I know, were sceptical at the time of its inception. However, I left the meeting feeling very positive. There was much discussion, both during the meeting and in the bar afterwards, where it was clear that scientists from diverse biological disciplines are speaking with a single voice on many important issues. This also came through in the President’s summing up when he explained that his consultations with member societies had frequently yielded common views and enabled him to submit cohesive responses to the many government consultation papers that are circulated each year. We can only hope that the weight of the collective response has a greater influence on government thinking than the sum of the contributions from individual societies. I am optimistic.

(Members will be able to hear more about FEC at the Joint BPS/Physiological Society Hot Topics in Pharmacology/Physiology meeting, 19-20 April 2005, in Manchester, details of which will be circulated to departments soon).

Julia Buckingham