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Big science: Public investment in large scientific facilities

The Government’s investment in large scientific facilities is starting to deliver a significant programme including such projects as the research ship RRS James Cook and the Diamond Synchrotron light source, according to an NAO report published today. Some project teams, however, have significantly underestimated the likely running costs of facilities and more attention needs to be given to assessing at an early stage the range of benefits which these facilities should yield.

The Department of Trade and Industry through the Research Councils invests in large scientific facilities to support and develop the nation’s scientific base. Currently, £830 million has been earmarked from a central fund to 15 projects which are expected to cost the UK taxpayer some £1.2 billion to build. (Ten of these projects have now been approved, one of which has been delivered, with the others due for completion in the period to 2011.) The report says that the process of drawing up a “road map” has allowed projects to be prioritised across the science base and has been commended by other countries.

The report says it is too early to assess the value for money of the science facilities. To date performance against capital budgets suggests some good budget management, for example on the James Cook research ship, the first of the projects to be delivered. The report provides latest figures showing that, across the ten projects underway, some of which are at an early stage, total capital expenditure is forecast to exceed approved budgets by 6 per cent. The report also shows some projects are forecasting delivery dates some 12 months or more later than approved.

The forecast operating costs of some projects have increased by large amounts compared to estimates when their business cases were approved, with increases of over 80 per cent for the first phases of the Diamond Synchrotron and for the ISIS second target station. The report says that Research Councils need to do more work to estimate the likely ongoing costs of new facilities.

At the point at which projects are first prioritised for funding, costs and benefits are provisional. At the subsequent business case stage, where costs or benefits – including industrial and economic – differ significantly from those anticipated initially, the report says that the priority of the project should be reviewed.

The report says ultimately the value of the facilities will depend on the scientific discoveries they make. It also says that more work is needed by Research Councils to examine the potential impact of new facilities on the future demand for research funding. Full use of these facilities will depend on research ideas competing successfully for research funding, through peer review, against other calls on limited Research Council budgets.

“The introduction of a shared plan covering all the Research Councils is beginning to deliver new large facilities which will be available to scientists from across the research base. Improvements are needed however, if the benefit of the current planned £1.2 billion investment in scientific facilities is to be maximised. Before a project is approved, the range of scientific, industrial and economic benefits should be consistently specified.

“The full financial impact of a facility also needs to be better understood to make sure that only those projects which are sustainable in the long term are selected. More consistent application of Government-wide project review procedures and greater sharing of procurement practices would help teams to deliver timely and economical projects.”

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO

Notes for Editors

  1. Figure 7 of the report compares the latest forecast capital cost of each project with the capital budget at approval. Figure 8 compares the latest estimate of annual operating costs of each project to the estimate in the approved business case. Figure 9 shows progress against planned delivery dates.
  2. The Department of Trade and Industry’s Office of Science and Innovation is the lead body responsible for UK science policy. The Office and the eight Research Councils aim to strengthen the UK’s science base, and maximise its contribution to UK economic development. The Research Councils are the main public investors in civil research in the UK. Each Research Council is responsible for deciding the research priorities within their particular field, in line with overall policy set by the Office of Science and Innovation.
  3. The central fund (the Large Facilities Capital Fund) was introduced in 2002-03 to help fund projects judged to be of sufficient priority. By 2003-04, the total funds available to large facilities amounted to around £100 million per annum and funding has continued at this level. The National Audit Office reviewed the evolution, status and plans of all ten projects prioritised for support prior to 2006. These were the:
    • Diamond Synchrotron light source;
    • Second Target Station for the ISIS pulsed neutron source;
    • Research ship James Cook;
    • Energy Recovery Linac Prototype for a fourth generation light source;
    • HECToR high end computing service;
    • new laboratory for the Institute for Animal Health;
    • Muon Ionisation Cooling Experiment;
    • Halley VI Antarctic research station;
    • new premises for the Laboratory of Molecular Biology;
    • Research Complex for visiting users of facilities at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus including the Diamond Synchrotron.
  4. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  5. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 850 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

PN: 05/06