Accounting Error Leads to Funding Drought

Reposted from Science magazine 24 May 2002.

A major British research funding agency has canceled an entire round of grants, worth $19 million, in an attempt to fend off a cash crisis. Last week's decision by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) has infuriated scientists in fields ranging from atmospheric and polar sciences to freshwater biology. "The long-term damage will be to the career structure of young scientists" who find themselves without a project this year, says Ekhard Salje, head of earth sciences at Cambridge University.

NERC is one of seven agencies that channel government money into academic research. Its current woes stem from a failure in its new accounting system and overspending on staff salaries last year. In a statement last week, NERC announced that the cruel double whammy, its own doing, has forced it to save $28 million this year, although NERC has asked the government to contribute $8.5 million to lessen the blow.

The agency will find most of the savings by canceling its first of two rounds of 3-year research grants planned for 2002, forcing researchers on as many as 50 projects to seek funding elsewhere. Aspiring grantees must now wait until December for the next round. "It was a regrettable decision that was not taken lightly" says David Brown, NERC's director of science programs. "If there was any other course of action we would have taken it." He says that other programs, such as NERC's small grants, studentships, and prestigious fellowships, are unaffected.

Researchers are dismayed by the lost opportunity and the major blow that it will deal to departments that rely heavily on NERC money, says Salje. Many of the students in his own department at Cambridge, he notes, are funded through the standard grants program. "We won't be able to educate the next generation of young scientists" he says. In some cases, labs in other countries will benefit from NERC's accounting error. Ph.D. student Markus Geisen of the Natural History Museum in London was to lead a research project on a micropaleontology grant this summer but says he now plans to skip over to Germany for a short-term contract researching coccolith biology.

Brown says that NERC will seek more money for the December round of grants if it receives a flood of strong proposals. However, paleontologist Jeremy Young of the Natural History Museum, who was hoping to employ Geisen, doesn't know what to expect come December. "The competition ... will be very high" he predicts. "It is going to cause absolute chaos."

Julia Day is an intern in the Cambridge, U.K., office of Science.

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