Cambridge University is ready to abandon its plans to build a laboratory near the city to experiment on monkeys' brains. Faced with spiralling costs - the estimated bill has risen, so far, from £24m to £32m in five years - and continuing opposition from the city council and anti-vivisection groups, the university's pro-vice-chancellor Professor Tony Minton said that it was time "to take stock" of the project and decide whether it was still feasible.
Criticism within the university has been presented to the Regent House, the institution's governing council. An internal watchdog complained that the council was "misled" and that the proposers "withheld information" about the project - crucially, that the laboratory's work would involve the use of primates - in its revised proposals put forward in 2000.
But the biggest problem facing the scheme is that it will now be too expensive for the university, which is facing a shortage of funds. Extra security for staff and students working at the site, and inflation, have pushed up the costs.
A university spokesman said: "We are looking at how we could fund the shortfall, but we aren't going to go ahead with a project that we cannot fund." Cambridge is expected to run up an overall deficit of £10m this year, and is forecast to be around £9m next year.
The university said it was talking to funding partners and the Medical Research Council about extra funding but primate research has recently come in for stinging criticism from MPs and scientists. A group of 155 MPs recently signed a parliamentary motion saying that experiments on primates could not be justified in view of the "important biological differences" between people and primates, and a group of scientists has written to national papers pointing out that research results from primates often do not transfer to humans, especially in brain treatments.
The plan put forward in 1998 would convert a collection of the university's farm buildings on the Huntingdon Road, presently used for agricultural studies, into a modern laboratory to perform research on the brains of hundreds of primates, such as marmosets and macaques, with the intention of understanding how to cure human brain disorders, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
But that has attracted opposition from the local council, which fears that anti-vivisection groups will create chaos with protests. On 11 October, hundreds of protesters brought the city centre to a standstill when they protested against the plans. South Cambridgeshire District Council has twice turned down the university's application. The most recent public hearing ended in January, and the university's appeal against the rulings is now being considered by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.
The university spokesman admitted yesterday that, even if Mr Prescott approves the scheme, nobody knows how it could be funded. Inflation means that the cost of the project rises by thousands of pounds every month.
Andrew Tyler, a director of the anti-vivisection group Animal Aid, called the retreat a face-saving measure. He said: "It is unlikely the university would want to be seen as bowing to pressure from animal welfare campaigners, nor backing down on the principle of primate-based research, which is already being carried out within other university departments. Pulling the plug on the project due to lack of finances would give Cambridge a face-saving way out of the controversy."