A RESEARCH council in Swindon has come under fire for shelling out nearly £9m in the last three years to send staff on overseas trips, including to Hawaii, the Canary Islands, Japan and the USA.

The taxpayer-funded Science and Technology Facilities Council, which has its headquarters at Polaris House, North Star, spent a total of £8,487,998.49 on overseas travel, accommodation and subsistence, plus other expenses, including vehicle hire, mileage and parking tolls.

Figures released under the Freedom Of Information Act show £3m is spent annually on travel abroad from the overall STFC budget of £490,000. A total of £2,435,966 in 2010/11, £3,774,577.7 in 2011/12 and £2,277,454.5 from April 2012 until December 2012.

STFC estimates the costs relate to about 36 to 38 per cent of their 1,600 staff across the UK Pressure group the Taxpayers’ Alliance has criticised this level of expenditure, but STFC says international travel is fundamental to its core business, as face-to-face interaction with international partners is central to its role.

The expenses relate to staff international travel associated with STFC operation of telescopes in Hawaii and the Canary Islands, plus scientific research.

This was conducted by staff at overseas facilities, representation of the UK in global forums, promotion of scientific and technical expertise in commercial settings, and STFC management and/or oversight of UK membership of international scientific research.

This was at facilities in Switzerland, Japan, France, the US, Chile, Germany and elsewhere.

Jake Gilmore, the STFC media manager, said some Swindon staff, including chief executive Prof John Womersley, go abroad to broker deals on joint international science projects, to levy and monitor funding, and to build relationships with counterparts in other countries to share expensive equipment, while technical staff went abroad to install, operate and maintain hi-tech kit.

He said staff might go to Washington DC to negotiate with the US Government, or to the Large Hadron Collider, CERN, near Geneva, but staff always travel economy class and stay in basic accommodation to cut costs.

He said: “The £3m figure out of £490m, it’s less than one per cent, but the work these people are doing overseas, both on the research side and on the admin side where they’re brokers and managing relationships, that levies a lot more money for UK scientists than £3m.”

But Matthew Sinclair, the chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “Britain should continue to invest in scientific research, but those responsible for spending taxpayers money should be mindful of how they use it given that many families are struggling to make ends meet.”