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Greater rigour vital to get best value from UK's science investment

29 June 2016

The Public Accounts Committee report urges the Government to adopt a more consistent and evidence-based approach to spending on science projects.    

Report conclusions and recommendations

The Committee's report says the Government should also do more to protect the intellectual property that results from taxpayers' investment and to secure the benefits for the UK economy.

The Committee concludes science project proposals have not always faced sufficient financial analysis and scrutiny before being approved.

It calls on the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills to ensure all investment decisions are based on full business cases, to include "assessments of alternative options and locations, potential demand for the project and expected running costs".

£5.9 billion to be spent during 2016–21

The approach to evaluating the impact of public investment in science projects should be more consistent, says the Committee.

Clear plans must also be put in place to manage the science budget following proposed organisational changes in the research and higher education sectors.

Since 2007, the Department has committed around £3.2 billion capital funding for major science projects and has announced plans to spend £5.9 billion on capital projects between 2016 and 2021.

Its capital investments include oceanographic research ships, supercomputers, research institutes and the UK's participation in international programmes such as the European Space Agency.

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said:

"Public investment in science is crucial to support economic growth and secure the UK's place at the cutting edge globally.

It is therefore vital that taxpayers' money goes to the right projects, in the right locations. Funding decisions must be supported by a sound business case that is not unduly influenced by political pressures of the day.

We are not convinced there is sufficient rigour and transparency in the way funding decisions are made, nor enough attention paid to safeguarding the benefits resulting from those decisions.

The measures set out in our Report are intended to address these weaknesses and ensure taxpayers get best value from investments in science made on their behalf."

Richard Bacon MP, vice-chairman of the Committee, said:

"The widespread interest in astronaut Tim Peake or the 'Boaty McBoatface' research ship demonstrates the power of science to capture the imagination of the public and the scientists of the future.

If we are to get full benefit from our investments then the Government must adopt a more thorough and consistent approach to funding decisions and the way it measures their impact."

Report summary

The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills lacks a clear and consistent selection process and structured plan for prioritising potential capital investments and is, therefore, at risk of not selecting the right projects.

Furthermore, its decisions to invest in science projects have not been firmly grounded in robust analysis such as a consideration of alternative options or locations, the ongoing costs of running projects and how the Department and its research councils will track the delivery of potential benefits.

Proposed organisational changes to the Research Councils, and to the Higher Education Funding Council for England following the recent White Paper, may create opportunities for investment in science. However, the changes will also create risks that the Department will need to manage carefully.

Further information

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