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


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Save British Science Society

  1.  SBS has welcomed both the increased Science Budget, and many of the proposals in the White Paper. The comments set out below inevitably focus on areas of concern, but they should be seen in the context of a positive attitude towards significant increases in funding for the Science Base for which SBS has campaigned for years.


  2.  The key element of the new White Paper is the first sentence of paragraph 9, which reads:

    "The importance of excellent, curiosity-driven research cannot be emphasised too strongly."

  3.  If this philosophy is now to inform Government policy as a fundamental ethos, then British science is set to enjoy a new lease of life.


  4.  The White Paper give a fair and reasonable summary of how Britain stands in the scientific world at present. Resting on a proud scientific heritage, we retain a strong scientific potential, and as SBS pointed out a little over a year ago1, "if we handle change effectively, the UK is well placed to benefit greatly from developments in the science-based economy".

  5.  However, the UK cannot afford to be complacent. Our share of international science prizes has fallen in the last two decades, and the number of graduates in key disciplines, such as chemistry and physics, is also falling. The knock-on effects, for example in terms of recruiting physics teachers, are also worrying.


  6.  The key proposals of the White Paper are all welcome. Increased investment in the science base, an explicit recognition that higher remuneration is one element of the package required to turn the brain drain into a brain gain, and a focus on enthusing young people about science, are all valuable.


  7.  SBS fully agrees that we need better science in schools, and set out several proposals in a symposium report entitled Holding on to Excellence in the Science Base during the summer of 20002.

  8.  However, we remain deeply concerned about the recruitment of qualified teachers, especially in mathematics and physics. The White Paper states that the Government intends to monitor the effects of offering £10,000 recruitment packages for teachers in shortage subjects. Since the publication of the White Paper, there have been strong signals that the packages are insufficient to stem the problem. In October 2000, it was reported that the number of people registered to start graduate teacher-training courses in physics had dropped by 17 per cent on the previous year's figure3.

  9.  It is clear that further action will be needed, other than that which is outlined in the White Paper.


  10.  Two schemes were announced in the White Paper aimed at offering better remuneration for researchers.

  11.  Increases in stipends for graduate students, together with the scheme announced in the White Paper, and launched in January 2001, to recruit a small number of the world's leading researchers into the UK science base, are welcome principally because they represent an explicit recognition that the "brain drain" is real and that remuneration is an important element of the solution.

  12.  SBS welcomes the fact that the allocation of the Science Budget, announced in November 2000, stated an explicit policy that the research councils have the freedom to pay more than the basic minimum stipend for PhD students if they deem it necessary, and we hope that the councils will take advantage of this freedom4.

  13.  However, the schemes for doctoral students and senior high-fliers will affect relatively few people, and the bulk of researchers in the science base will remain extremely poorly paid by international standards, by comparison with their counterparts who leave science to work in other parts of the economy, and by historical standards.

  14.  This is the biggest disappointment of recent announcements. The extra investment in infrastructure, the attempts to reinvigorate science in schools, and the mood of positive appreciation of science and scientists, will all be devalued if the science base continues to suffer from inadequate salaries. The Department for Education & Employment's announcements of the budgets for universities over the coming years show that the Department is continuing in its failure to understand that researchers' salaries are one of the most important issues for the future of the economy.5

  15.  This is a subject on which the Select Committee has recently displayed a strong appreciation, and SBS hopes that the tone and content of recent exchanges with the Science Minister6 will be fully reflected in the Committee's final report of the current inquiry.


  16.  SBS broadly supports the Government's approach to providing opportunities for innovation in universities. In particular, we have welcomed the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), and its substantial growth over its predecessor, the Higher Education Reach Out to Business and the Community Fund (HEROBAC). In 1999, SBS said:

    "When it is proved to be a success on the current modest scale (which it undoubtedly will be), the Reach Out scheme should be expanded greatly...[but] not, of course, the expense of other funding streams."1

  17.  Thus, we fully support the White Paper's announcement that the HEIF will grow to be three times as large as HEROBAC, and that this is real new money. We hope that in time, it will be possible to expand the scheme still further.

  18.  We remain concerned, however, that links with the economy should not become too central a focus of too many higher education institutes. Universities are primarily places where new knowledge is generated, where existing knowledge is reinterpreted, and where people are educated and trained. Income from spin-out companies, licensing and other uses of intellectual property makes up on a tine fraction of total revenue, even in those American universities that are most successful at generating income in this way.

  19.  Thus, SBS welcomes the White Paper's insistence that UK universities should be able to operate according to a diversity of missions, allowing some institutions at one extreme to focus on leading-edge basic, fundamental investigations and academic teaching, while those at the other end of the spectrum concentrate on research of direct relevance to local business and industrially-relevant training. Other institutions will lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

  20.  This philosophy will need to be backed up by the funding mechanisms, which must not distort this flexibility and diversity. In recent years, the Research Assessment Exercise has forced institutions to concentrate on one particular kind of output, to the exclusion of others.


  21.  The White Paper's focus on transparency and accountability in scientific advice is a welcome continuation of changes that began with the publication in 1997 of the Chief Scientific Adviser's Guidelines on the use of scientific advice in policy making.

  22.  SBS remains concerned, however, about aspects of the advisory system. One concern, set out in more detail in paragraphs 38 to 41, is the serious decline in the budget for policy-led research in the civil departments.

  23.  Moreover, serious concerns about the scientific advisory systems have been highlighted by the BSE Inquiry, which uncovered specific evidence regarding problems with implementing regulations in abattoirs. Although the Chief Medical Officer considered that there was a risk to human health, civil servants prevented him from informing ministers about his concerns, let alone informing the public7.

  24.  The Report of the BSE Inquiry recommended that scientific advisers should have a clear role not just as advisers within Whitehall, but also in advising the public directly. Importantly, it also found that the current system has permitted the "inappropriate use" of supposedly independent scientific advisory committees8.

  25  The ethos of openness that is set out in the White Paper will need to be rigorously enforced if such abusers are to be avoided in future.


  26.  SBS has wholeheartedly welcomed the announcement of significant increases in funding for the Science Base over the years 2000-01 to 2003-04. If similar levels of growth in the Science Budget can be achieved for a period of about a decade, then (taking into account likely changes in GDP) the UK would be investing in its Science Base at a level comparable to the average of other OECD countries.

  27.  The concerns set out in paragraphs 28 to 41 should be understood in the context of SBS's delight that UK Government investment in scientific research is increasing at roughly the level we have been campaigning for over a period of years.


  28.  The new Science Research Investment Fund (SRIF) represents a major injection of capital into UK science, and SBS sincerely hopes that it will enable the universities to begin to put right the severe damage that has been inflicted on the infrastructure of the Science Base over the past two decades.

  29.  Our principal concern is that the requirement for universities to find 25 per cent of the funds for any project from other sources may hinder the full potential of the £675 million that has been allocated to capital projects in universities.

  30.  Although the rules will not demand it, it is clear both from the amounts required (£325 million across the system) and from the comments of ministers6, that it is intended that the bulk of the money will come from private industry.

  31.  The table below9 shows that UK universities already raise more funding from private industry than their counterparts in other countries, relative to government investment.

Business funding of R&D in higher education, as a percentage of the amount that is funded by Government

  32.  It may prove difficult to extract further large amounts of private investment in university research, at least on the timescale of the SRIF, unless extra incentives are offered to make it easier for industry to contribute.

  33.  It would be an unforgivable tragedy if the new scheme were to prove less effective than everybody hopes it will be, simply because the difficulties of raising matching funds could not be overcome in the two years during which the Treasury has made the funds available.


  34.  The graph below10 shows how the balance between research investment in the research councils and the funding councils has changed over the past 20 years, including estimates for the next two years based on the assumption that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Funding Councils will show the same proportional increase as the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

  35.  Quite apart from the deliberate transfer of funds within the dual support system (represented, for example, by the steep decline in the graph in the early 1990s), there has been a continued shifting in the balance of further for research away from the funding councils and towards the research councils.

  36.  The announcements in the recent Spending Review appear to confirm that the Government does not wish to see a substantial redressing of this balance.

  37.  This is unfortunate, because without substantial funds coming via the Funding Council route, the Science Base will lack the flexibility and freedom to make maximum use of the significant and welcome new money that has been made available.


  38.  Research and development in the civil departments is an important part of the Government's scientific portfolio. Although the research budgets of these departments are not formally part of the Science Budget, and although they have not yet been announced, there is already confusion about the changes that are likely to be made.

  39.  The Spending Review document talked about "anticipated rises" in the research budgets of the three departments that fund most scientific work—the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Departments of Health and of the Environment11. But at the same time, the then Chief Scientific Adviser appeared to cast doubt on these increases by saying that he hoped these budgets would stay "at least constant in real terms."12

  40.  More recently, in response to another of the Select Committee's inquiries, the Government has made it clear that there is not yet any clear view about the future research budget of the Ministry of Agriculture.13 Not only is this uncertainty deeply unsettling for the scientific community, but, as SBS expressed in evidence to a previous inquiry, the continued cuts in the research budgets of the civil departments are deeply damaging.14

  41.  Moreover, they are not irrelevant to the budget of the Office of Science & Technology, as one of the research councils pointed out, when it described the cuts as putting "major pressure" on the Science Budget.15


  42.  Overall the White Paper and Spending Review (and the Science Budget based on it) signal a move in the right direction for British science. But there remains a long way to go before the UK truly realises its potential.

January 2001


  1.  From the laboratory bench to the boardroom: Creating wealth from the academic science base, SBS, 1999 [SBS 99/17]

  2.  Holding on the excellence in the science base, SBS, 2000 [SBS 00/21]

  3.  Physics World, October 2000, p.13

  4.  The Science Budget 2001-02 to 2003-04, DTI/OST, 2000

  5.  DfEE Press Release 508/00 (16 November 2000)

  6.  Minutes of Evidence taken before the Science & Technology Committee of the House of Commons, 25 October 2000

  7.  See the oral evidence of Sir Kenneth Calman on the website of the BSE Inquiry

  8.  Report of the BSE Inquiry, The Stationery Office, 2000

  9.  Main Science & Technology Statistics and Basic Science & Technology Statistics, OECD, latest editions

  10.  SET Statistics 2000, OST, 2000, and earlier editions of this and similar official publications

  11.  Spending Review 2000: New public spending plans 2001-2004, HM Treasury, 2000 [Cm 4807]

  12.  Research Fortnight, 2 August 2000, p.1

  13.  Government Response to the Seventh Report of the Science and Technology committee on the Government's Expenditure on Research and Development: The Forward Look—the Government's Reply, Third Special Report of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, Session 1999-2000 [HC 981]

  14.  World class investment in world class science, SBS, 1999 [SBS 99/23]

  15.  Government Expenditure on Research and Development: The Forward Look, Fifth Report of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, Session 1999-2000, Volume II, Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence [HC 196-II]

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