NAO urges better decisions on science investment

10 Mar 16

Government investment in large-scale science projects such as supercomputers and particle accelerators should be more systematic, with decisions backed by better information, auditors have said.

A National Audit Office review of the £1.1bn the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills spends each year on capital investment in science highlighted a lack of good quality information to sift and assess proposals.

In some cases, BIS has had to quickly identify projects to invest in when funding has become available at short notice, but has had no structured plan to aid these decisions, the watchdog said.

Recently approved business cases lack analysis on what projects could cost to run or assurance on how ongoing costs will be funded, despite science infrastructure often being expensive to maintain. The NAO estimates the 56 science capital projects funded by BIS since 2007 may cost £2bn to run between 2015/16 and 2020/21.

Science capital projects, however, have a good implementation track record, with many delivered on time and to budget.

NAO head Amyas Morse said: “BIS’s capital spending on science was above £1bn in 2014/15 and this is expected to continue until 2021. Many long-running science projects have high levels of demand and have made notable scientific impact.

“However, the department has not used good quality information to decide which science capital projects to invest in to optimise scientific and economic benefits. We regard this, and other shortcomings, a undermining of BIS’s ability to prioritise and deliver value for money on its capital funding of scientific research.”

The NAO noted that investment in science supported growth and encouraged national productivity. It highlighted the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator and the Royal Research Ship James Cook, which has been used for climate change research, as two operational projects that are in high demand and have produced many benefits to science and society.

  • Vivienne Russell

    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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