31 May, 2011 - 07:27 By Tony Quested

Time to recruit ‘grant police’

The UK is awash with grant money, all funded from the pockets of the hard-pressed taxpayer. Millions and millions of pounds of it.The money is intended to stimulate innovation and the economy. Given such a vital objective in these financially austere times it would be nice if a more rigorous system was in place to better monitor how funds are used.

Sadly such metrics appear to be virtually non existent. More transparency is required to ensure the system does not mean money down the drain and ethics along with it. More to the point it is economically essential to understand how best to leverage certain technologies above others.

The responsibility of those handed UK government or European money to dispense is to ensure as far as is reasonable that it ends up in the right hands and is then optimised.

No-one can guarantee that any science or technology research will result in an end product, or that the grant alone will be enough to even complete a project. It’s another brick in the funding wall.

But it would be nice to have an updatable graphic that evidences where the cash went and what resulted from it. Regardless of success or failure this is above all an issue of provenance and accountability.

A little over six years ago, Business Weekly approached a leading accountancy practice in London that was administering grant dispensation for the former Department of Trade & Industry. We asked on what basis they had advanced a substantial sum of taxpayers’ cash to a Cambridge biotech company that we believed had been discredited by its own trade partners.

The founder appeared to have existed on grant funding for the best part of 15 years and we failed to see what practical progress the core technology had made. The accountancy practice said they could not disclose details of any individual grant but would have been satisfied the recipient was a worthy candidate.

We raised those concerns in the spring of 2005 and no-one was prepared to be accountable to the destination and use of the taxpayers’ money in this instance. The company concerned went bust two years ago.

The issue was that both the World Health Organisation and Seattle-based PATH (the Program for Appropriate Technologies in Health) expressed concerns about the vaccines technology involved – ostensibly a solution to Third World disease. Rather than saving millions of children’s lives, the vaccines could endanger them, we were told. Additionally, the vaccines posed a potential threat to the environment.

Debra Kristensen, a senior technical officer at PATH, said at the time: “PATH decided to move away from use of fluorochemicals primarily because the burden of proof of safety will be exceptionally high for use of these chemicals in children’s vaccines. We also analysed environmental, supply, regulatory, and product cost issues.”

The flurochemicals in question – perfluorocarbons (PFCs) previously used by the Cambridge company to suspend microparticles in their device, allowing a thermostable vaccine – represented a greenhouse gas.

If you fail to grasp the potential significance of that, consider what the 12th meeting of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation board said of the use of PFCs. “If applied to only three childhood vaccines and used worldwide at a dose of 0.5 ml per dose per child, this corresponds to 500,000 litres of PFC, which would be excreted unchanged into the environment.”

So in essence, our London accountancy firm could, in good faith – but some may argue with poor judgement – have funded a so-called solution to healthcare problems that was unsafe to the recipients and a threat to the planet despite Business Weekly sharing with them our conversations with WHO and PATH.

Given the company’s demise and the fact the technology seems to have drifted into a backwater, we may mercifully have been spared a potentially tragic end to what appears to be a sloppy piece of administration.

This is an extreme example. But the general point about lack of transparency remains valid. The last government was fond of appointing Tsars for this that and the other supervisory role in a whole host of industries.

What we need now to ensure transparency is the creation of a ‘Grant Police’ – a latter-day Sir John Harvey-Jones or a respected figure from one of the independent financial institutions.

They could independently validate the due diligence process for all claims and ensure that part of the grant procedure involves regular reporting back from the recipient and an ‘end of term’ report.

This data should then be placed in the full public gaze so individuals don’t have to resort to invoking the Freedom of Information Act to elicit information that should be open to scrutiny at all times.

And it can be used as a template for future grant allocations, based on best practice and ‘what works.’

At a stage in our economy when every penny counts, according to the Chancellor, such a move would surely be sensible and timely.

www.businessweekly.co.uk

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