William Herschel’s “40-foot telescope”.

William Herschel’s “40-foot telescope”. Completed in 1789, it was at the time the world’s largest telescope. Funds for its construction were provided by King George III and included a yearly pension for Caroline Herschel to be her brother’s assistant.

The Government recently committed to invest £1.1 billion per year in science and research capital over the next five years, and a public consultation was launched to ask the research community for their views over how this should be spent.

The Royal Society responded to the consultation jointly with its sister academies: the British Academy, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The academies have welcomed the Government’s commitment to longer-term capital investment in science and research and have suggested five high-level principles to guide these decisions.

This consultation will inform the Government’s Science and Innovation Strategy to be published later this year.

What does research capital cover?

Research capital encompasses a wide range of investments, spanning from large scale national and international facilities such as the ATLAS experiment at CERN, to individual institutional equipment such as microscopes and MRI scanners.

It also covers less obvious research infrastructures such as research libraries, archives, large datasets and the increasingly important e-infrastructure that now underpins most research activity.

The importance of capital for UK research

The UK is an attractive and productive place to conduct world class research, and this research has the potential to transform society, revitalise the economy, improve health and enhance wellbeing, as has been demonstrated in recent studies.

A pillar of the UK research and innovation system is the research infrastructure underlying it. As the UK reaps the benefits of past investment it must ensure continued investment for the future, particularly given fierce scientific competition from abroad and growing opportunities for international collaboration which we simply won’t be able to take advantage of without the resource.

Principles for capital investment

The academies support the Government’s proposed criteria of affordability, excellence, impact, skills, efficiency and leverage for the prioritisation of investment in research capital.

The joint response proposes the following high-level principles to guide the allocation of research capital funding:

  • Balanced capital investment guided by excellence.
  • Long-term vision for national and international capital investment spanning at least a decade.
  • Systemic approach considering the essential interdependence of capital and resources and the broader landscape of research funding.
  • Comprehensive operational planning including:
    • Ensuring future viability through maintenance, operational provisions and upgrades.
    • Ensuring the provision of skilled staff to extract maximum value from capital investments.
    • Achieving efficiencies and maximizing returns by ensuring collaboration and business access.
  • Disciplinary mix:investing in research capital to support a broad range of disciplines.