Ownership battle looms

Ownership battle looms for research centres

Members at the Natural Environment Research Council are preparing for an ownership battle over the coming months.

NERC launched a stakeholder’s consultation process in July over possible changes to ownership models for four of its research centres: the National Oceanography Centre, the British Geological Survey, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science.

A number of different ownership models will be considered including that which already operates for the Plymouth Marine Laboratory – a limited company. Other potential models include trading fund status; takeover by academic institutions or full privatisation.

Prospect NERC branch chair, Dr Helen Snaith said: “We have been down this route before and so we do not believe that this is the best way to go. The branch is worried about financial stability and whatever the outcome, most of the research centres in question will continue to be funded by public money – as there is not a wealth of untapped commercial funding out there.

“The drivers for this exercise is not so much about private funding but a range of issues including increased flexibility for staff pay and progression arrangements, flexibility in financial management and function of the Research Council. The government’s continued squeeze on public sector pay is hurting UK research. They cannot pay its top people the market rate. We have argued that it isn’t just the top people but a problem throughout the various centres.

“It just doesn’t make sense for NERC to cast off its highly-respected research centres because it doesn’t have the flexibility to pay its staff the market rate. The government risks losing control of what these centres do and that is a fundamental problem,” said Snaith.

The stakeholder consultation is complicated and will therefore be overseen by an external advisory panel that will look at all submissions and assess the benefits and risks for possible ownership model considered against each of the centres.

No decisions are expected until next year.