Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Institution of Chemical Engineers


  The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) is the leading UK body for the accreditation of chemical engineering degree courses and the qualification of professional chemical engineers. Current membership stands at 25,000 worldwide.

  The IChemE has been closely involved with many of the activities which arose from the publication of the 1993 White Paper. We have been particularly engaged in both Foresight programmes, running an Associate programme in the current round, and continue to work closely with OST, DTI and the Research Councils. The comments in this memorandum are based on close association with the subject matter.

1.  Are we "Realising Our Potential"?

  The extent to which the objectives have been delivered:

  The primary engine of change in the White Paper was the Foresight process. This has had some successes in bringing industry, government and academe together to identify opportunity and methodology. In the process sector, it engaged some of the SMEs and two of the first round funded projects, CPACT and iAc, continue to be successful.

  The concept of industry led research funding as a mechanism for achieving "the interchange of ideas, skills, know-how and knowledge between the science and engineering base and industry" followed the IMI model. The main difference was the size of the programmes and the freedom to target areas of technology rather than fairly narrow topics. The main problem with the Foresight funding was that the £40 million of the first round was reduced to a much smaller amount in the subsequent round.

  Although this mechanism for achieving the objectives could have been used to disburse much more funding, most money still went through the traditional Research Council route. This lack of commitment to the process means that in academe much of the science base and some of the engineering base need only pay lip service to the Foresight priorities to maintain their funding.

  The industrial enthusiasm and funding for Foresight was based on a feeling that industry could have a real impact on the research agenda and create academic centres of excellence in areas vital to the economy. The lack of follow-through in the Foresight funding process will endanger this.

  Another mechanism for change was the modification of the Research Council structures and the various committees. This has had less impact than would have been hoped and there is little evidence of a common approach across the Research Councils. We particularly note the impact on bio-chemical engineering across the interface between the EPSRC and the BBSRC.

  Another area that is still a problem is the funding of interdisciplinary research. Before the rearrangement, in the process sector, about 50 per cent of "engineering" funds were used to support the underlying science base, mainly chemistry, whilst virtually no "science" funds went to engineering.

  It was hoped that the move to more explicit commitments to wealth creation, would force the science base to fund more interdisciplinary research, but this does not appear to have happened. This is not just conservatism or purist behaviour by "science" referees. There is a strongly held belief that the RAE will not value interdisciplinary research and that it does not lead to advancement in an academic science career. There is also a feeling that with too little funding available from Research Councils, the science base would suffer if these were further "diluted". There is clearly a need for a strong science base, some of which is focused on "knowledge" creation, but the balance is still not correct.

  The key themes in the White Paper were "wealth creation and the quality of life". The various changes were designed to promote and enforce these themes. This has had some success in the academic community but there are still many in the science base who regard wealth creation as an infringement on academic freedom.

2.  Are the 1993 Objectives still appropriate?

  Although the potential impact of globalisation was evident at the time of the White Paper the pace of change, which has been particularly acute in the industries served by our members, might not have been apparent. Industrially funded research in our industries is now a truly global activity and unless research is world class it will not receive support. At the same time we see other countries, the USA, Japan and Germany for example, making huge investment in specific areas of leading edge research.

  Whilst the main objectives of the original White Paper are still appropriate, the pace of change which is so far evident does not provide any confidence that the science, engineering, and technology base in the UK can meet these global challenges. The key question is can the pluralistic approach to research funding promote the growth in centres of excellence in leading edge technologies required to compete in a globally competitive environment?

3.  Culture Change?

  There has undoubtedly been some change in culture since the White Paper was published. Engineering research, which is by nature often interdisciplinary, has become more respectable in academic circles. There has also been a small but significant increase in the willingness of the science base to collaborate with engineering on particular projects. Industry and particularly SMEs have participated a little more, particularly in consortium activities.

  In spite of this, there is still a fundamental difference in the mindset and approach of the average engineer and the average scientist that makes the process very difficult. Most engineers want to make things and create wealth and most scientists want to discover things and create knowledge. That is why they chose their disciplines. This makes the setting of joint targets very difficult; engineers see scientists as narrow and unworldly whilst scientists see engineers as unfocused and money-driven. These attitudes have been largely uninfluenced by the White Paper.

  The recent discussions on Citation Indices and their appropriateness for engineering research, demonstrates the wide gap in aspirations.

4.  Science and Innovation Strategy

  We agree that the contents of the list cover appropriate aims. However our concern is whether the UK can achieve the pace of change required to maintain competitivity.

5.  A Modern Strategy

  A modern strategy for science and technology should be based wholly on a Foresight process. This will inevitably mean making some hard choices, which may be politically difficult. There has always been reluctance in public life to be seen to be "backing winners". The Foresight process offers a mechanism for engaging all the relevant parts of society in the task.

  There is a dichotomy in government funding of academic research. On the one hand, there is a tendency continuously to seek novel mechanisms and schemes to create a sense of movement and purpose. On the other hand, there is a natural inertia, from dealing with such diverse communities, which leads to a lack of zero based funding decisions. This leads both to projects continuing to receive funding, when they are in areas that are no longer strategic priorities and to a lack of continuity of funding for new projects in areas that are strategically important.

  Some mechanisms, such as Faraday Partnerships, do have a longer time horizon, but for many mechanisms the funding ends after three years. A modern strategy would seek to identify strategic goals in areas vital to the nation and develop an appropriate funding mechanism to meet those goals.

  A nation the size of the UK cannot be a world leader in every area, but there will be areas of national excellence to be maintained and built on. There will also be fundamental technologies that any nation would need to keep abreast of to survive in an increasingly complex world.

  The Foresight process offers a national basis for decision-making. The process is not limited to academic research. It could identify educational needs in the population. It could then provide a basis for allocation of funds to educational establishments at all levels.

June 2000

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