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NAO takes BIS to task over capital awards for science facilities

13 Mar 2016

The National Audit Office (NAO) last week published a report on BIS’s capital investments in science projects.

The NAO report found that BIS has committed £3.2 billion of capital expenditure to 56 projects since 2007 and estimates that these projects may cost some £2 billion to run between 2015-16 and 2020-21.

The report states “BIS believes that its 2015 Spending Review resource settlement will cover the costs of running projects but we have not seen analysis to support this.” For instance, the report found that of the 15 new projects that BIS selected from the recent capital consultation responses, over half were not scored on what they would cost to run.

The report concludes:

“Since 2010, BIS has lacked a clear process for deciding which projects are investment priorities, and BIS’s processes for prioritising projects and taking spending decisions have not been consistently supported by good-quality information such as what projects could cost to run. BIS also lacks adequate analysis of whether its investment in a portfolio of science capital projects is optimising scientific and economic benefits. We regard these shortcomings as avoidable and undermining of BIS’s ability to prioritise and deliver value for money across the range of its capital funding of scientific research.”

The analysis supporting recent business cases has not always been complete. We reviewed 20 business cases approved between 2008 and 2015 and found that some of the more recently approved business cases lacked key analysis, such as an assessment of alternative options, estimates of what projects could cost to run, or assurance on how ongoing costs would be funded.”

Commenting on the report, CaSE Director Dr Sarah Main, said,

“What started, spiritually, with graphene has snowballed to £2bn, 8% of the resource budget, to keep the lights on in new facilities. That’s before funding anyone to do any actual research there. So there’s £2bn less available to the UK’s researchers applying for grants to fund their work – including ​the researchers who will work in those new facilities.”

“No-one wants to look a gift horse in the mouth, so these Treasury gifts for new facilities are always welcomed. But we simply cannot continue ​expecting them to be run using funds that are meant for researchers’ great ideas or we will permanently degrade our pool of knowledge and innovation. It is high time Treasury and BIS planned funding for​ the lifetime of​ new facilities,​ ​so that the significant investment Government is putting into science is put to best use, for everyone’s benefit.”​

Download the full NAO report