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


Memorandum submitted by the Society for General Microbiology

  SGM is a learned society and a registered charity with over 5,000 members worldwide. The Society provides a common meeting ground for scientists working in fields with applications in microbiology including medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food, and the environment. SGM is committed to representing the science and profession of microbiology to government, the media and the general public; supporting microbiology education at all levels; and encouraging the uptake of careers in microbiology.


  The Follet committee has done an excellent job in persuading OST of the need to raise the stipend of PhD studentships, and this increase is long overdue. Of course it would be even better to see the increases appear earlier.

  The UK Life Services Committee (of which the SGM is a member) has called for the number of Life Science PhD places to be reduced. There is now serious discussion at MRC level about four-year studentships linked to MRes courses, and this has also been debated at BBSRC. If this happens then inevitably the number of studentships available will fall and there is a danger that these will be focussed in the major research centres only! It must be determined whether it is solely the low stipend that is failing to attract PhD students. Lower numbers of available studentships may result in perceptions among students that research career opportunities will be confined to the elite.


  The further £1 billion funding for infrastructure is very welcome but still falls short of fully restructuring British Science. SGM Council noted that a lot of money was wasted by Universities in getting JIF bids together that were ultimately unsuccessful, eg surveying, planning permission etc. This also takes up a lot of academic and administrative staff time. A pre-screening step, so that only proposals that get through the first stage are invited for the full proposal, could save universities money.


  The budget identified three key areas of research: genomics, e-science and basic technology. Microbiology is a key subject in all three, to varying degrees, and the SGM welcomes government investment in them. Cross council initiatives and co-ordinated programmes encourage idea generation.

  The Society was surprised that more emphasis was not given to environmental science, in particular the impact of environmental microbiology. We recognise that this falls mainly within the NERC's remit. However, subjects such bioremediation should be considered as part of a cross-council programme, and will require collaboration between microbiologists, engineers, ecologists, chemists etc.

  Separate biological science departments, such as microbiology departments, are becoming a thing of the past, and most viable research groups are now in centres, institutes or laboratories. Although this does not compromise applications for funding, indeed grants are more likely to be awarded to multidisciplinary "centres of excellence"; problems may arise in the Research Assessment Exercise due to blurring of university department boundaries. For example the breadth of microbiological research may mean that it is evaluated in the biological sciences, agriculture or medical units of assessment. There is a belief that this could lead to differing RAE scores depending on the unit of assessment involved, and a need to ensure that interdisciplinary work is assessed.


  The Office of Science and Technology initiatives to communicate with the public must involve learned societies to a greater extent. Societies such as the SGM have many resources available to inform the public. The SGM runs workshops and produces information packs for teachers; produces posters and leaflets for schools; and organises lectures and demonstrations. SGM encourages young people to take up a career in microbiology by distributing literature to schools and colleges, attending careers events and promoting the subject in the media.


  The research council budgets give no idea of the funding split between universities and institutes.

  It is unclear how increases in the science budget will reflect on individual Government department R&D budgets. For example, in the last spending review MAFF's budget actually fell. It is important that departmental R&D spending is maintained.

10 January 2001

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