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.