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Buildings and Bodies

Sir Andre Geim, discoverer of graphene is quoted in the Times today (£), speaking at the Hay Festival, about the new £60M Graphene Centre based at The University of Manchester. It says, “…of the £60 million of public funds invested in the centre, just £9 million had been spent on equipment and nothing on staff.” He also comments on the fact that the building has taken 5 years to build and in this time other countries have streaked ahead of the UK in graphene research.

I can’t comment on the later point, not being a graphene expert, but on the former, there is clearly a delicate balancing act to be made between supporting infrastructure and funding people to actually do the work. What else might £60M have gotten us? Well, conservatively you could have funded (perhaps not at one institution), £10m of equipment, and then invested the other £50M in 5 year research professorships, say 50, with six figure investments into support packages for each. In the short term this would give a much bigger bang for your buck in research terms than a new building. Longer term, I’d assess the same would be true – but the costs would have to be found at institutions to support these new staff, and they would have to be winning competitive external awards to support their research. I’m sure the new centre will ultimately do well, but I can’t help feeling that to jump on new and innovative research directions it is not buildings that are needed.

There is clearly a need for new buildings at times, but I am not convinced we are well served by these types of investments (this is essentially, if I understand correctly, a directly funded Government initiative (£38M from Government, £23M through ERDF). We have an ample University estate, and graphene research in the UK would probably have been much better served by distributed funding, with the focus on bodies and basic research and not buildings.

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