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


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Institute of Physics

  The Institute of Physics is a leading international professional body and learned society with over 30,000 members, which promotes the advancement and dissemination of a knowledge of, and education in, the science of physics, pure and applied.

  The Institute is pleased to have the opportunity to add to its earlier comments to the Select Committee for its inquiry into the DTI's White Papers of 1993 and July 2000.

  The Institute welcomes the 2000 White Paper, as an important contribution to public policy. The Institute also welcomes the associated Science Budget settlement, which together with the earlier 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review provides a firm basis for the necessary sustained growth of the UK's scientific research. Government is to be congratulated for taking practical steps towards providing the UK with appropriate levels of research investment. However, despite, these welcome measures, it will be difficult to rectify the UK's long-standing R&D shortfall relative to its key international competitors, particularly because research budgets around the world have been increasing significantly. For instance, last year US federally funded research budget grew by 9.1 per cent in a single year.[26]

  The White Paper considers an important set of developments affecting the research culture of the physical sciences, including globalisation, the knowledge economy, the internet revolution, multidisciplinary research frontiers and changes in the social contract. Two particular issues stand out.

  First, key changes to the nature of scientific research will occur largely independent of the actions of government. Government has a responsibility to respond to change, to help shape change in the science and technology arena, and to provide resources for specific elements but it must work in partnership with other key stakeholders to ensure maximum effect. The White Paper has identified several emerging threats and opportunities facing the UK's technological future. The challenge lies in delivering sound policy in such a shifting landscape.

  Second, the changes now underway in the physical science are unusually fast moving. The Institute notes extraordinary demand for highly qualified physicists from emerging high-technology sectors, such as telecommunications, IT, management consultancy, banking and the entertainment industry. The high remuneration packages on offer to physicists entering such sectors mean other sectors, including health care, defence research, university research and school teaching, are struggling to find sufficient physics applicants to fill positions. The pool of applicants is limited and the salaries and terms of employment on offer in these other sectors appear increasingly uncompetitive. Several of the struggling sectors are publicly funded, not least academic and research sectors, which are finding it difficult to respond to these emerging pressures.

  Government stills plays a dominant role in the supply of scientific personnel and a large role in demand. Considering the public sectors' demand for scientists there are key areas of the public sector that are already facing difficulties in recruitment. Urgent action is required by government to make scientific careers in the public sector more attractive.

  The Institute would like to make the following points in response to specific statements made in the White Paper.

  1.  The Institute welcomes the £1 billion Science Research Investment Fund (chapter 1, paragraph 32) and the £250 million boost to research in key areas of physics (including nanotechnology and quantum computing) and biology, which will help UK universities to compete on an international level. The Institute is also pleased with the commitment by the government, the Wolfson Foundation and the Royal Society to contribute £4 million a year to recruit top researchers (paragraph10) and that postgraduate students will benefit from increased financial support.

  2.  The Institute also welcomes the additional funds for universities through the Higher Education Innovation Fund (chapter 3, paragraph 9). Some of the developments facing UK physics research, such as an increasing emphasis on "third leg" mission will require effort and flexibility on the part of the research community. The increasing diversity of missions for our universities represents an opportunity for the sciences. The Institute would be glad to play a role in providing a forum for the research community and policy-makers to take these ideas forward.

  3.  The Institute is of the view that science in general, but physics in particular, has not been funded at a level that will retain our position against the enormous strides taken by other countries and industrial competitors. Science funding has failed to exploit the imagination, skills and historical lead of the British scientific community, both at the detail (eg effective funding of decent laboratories and workshops) and at high level (eg full-scale shifts of funding away from exciting and relevant areas of research such as applied nuclear physics).

  4.  The infrastructure of the universities is fundamental if the UK is to maintain its stronghold as a world player in innovative research, and the additional money for infrastructure will certainly help in providing universities with better research facilities. However, more will be needed in the near future, if UK scientists and engineers are to compete effectively on a global scale. The Institute recognises the contribution of the Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF), but does not agree that it has significantly affected university infrastructure. Rather, most of the money has been used to fund a number of important and worthy university based research and innovation projects. Although undoubtedly beneficial, JIF failed to address the essential problem of infrastructure. British university physics departments suffer from outdated machine shops, poor physical plant and buildings and eroded human resources in technical support. This view has been supported by an International Panel, which recently conducted a review of UK physics and astronomy research.[27] Given these limitations of JIF, the Institute is pleased to note that the £1 billion Science Research Investment Fund will provide funds in the region of £675 million to address the problems of inadequate research facilities in the universities. The Institute would be pleased to work with the Research Councils and the Office of Science and Technology (OST) to ensure that the new funds are used to the greatest effectiveness in physics research.

  5.  The White Paper makes several references to technologies in which physics is the key discipline, including modern communications, superconductivity, basic technology such as nanotechnology and the reference to CERN. To ensure the development of new knowledge and its utilisation for wealth creation, the UK needs to encourage physicists to follow their research instincts. Basic curiosity-driven research (chapter 1, paragraph 29) is vital to wealth creation and quality of life in the UK. Investment in fundamental research represents an underpinning for the multiple and complex demands of a high technology society.

  6.  The Institute welcomes the measures to stimulate investment by business and commerce in enterprise and innovation (chapter 3). In particular, further funding for the science enterprise centres is welcomed and proposed changes to the LINK initiatives will make collaborative work with business easier. The Small Business Research Initiative is an important proposal, but small business will need to be made aware of it and will need support to be effective at the bidding stage.

  7.  The Institute concurs with the view (chapter 2, paragraph 22) that the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) may favour single subject research at the expense of interdisciplinary collaborations. Data prepared for the recent International Review of UK Physics suggested disturbing trends in research staff numbers in university physics departments, with an increase in the core physics disciplines and a decline in such areas as medical physics, biophysics, geophysics and atmospheric physics. These results, based on a limited data, warrant further investigation. The White Paper regularly points to multidisciplinary collaborations as vital to the future research capabilities of the UK and hence wealth creation and quality of life. The International Panel in its report was particularly critical of the punitive nature of the RAE and suggested that the continuation of the present system could result in substantially fewer research departments in physics, in the foreseeable future. It is debatable whether such a small number of departments would be sufficient to provide enough well trained PhDs for the academic and industrial needs of the UK.

  8.  The Institute has been an enthusiastic contributor to the Foresight initiative and welcomes the launch of the new Foresight Fund of £15 million (chapter 3, paragraph 3) which will aim to put the best ideas of Foresight 2000 in to action. However, the Institute also notes the statement that, in the past, the Government has not placed enough emphasis on basic technology (chapter 2, paragraph 29). The Institute believes that the Foresight fund should be used to fund those Foresight initiatives, which encompass basic technology. The science base is functioning well and should not be undermined by funding these new areas. Rather the Institute detects an opportunity to boost technology support expenditure through DTI budget lines that once supported an interventionist industrial policy.

  9.  The Institute welcomes the additional funding for PhD stipends, (chapter 1, paragraph 32) as current levels are deterring physics graduates from entering research careers. However, despite the additional funding, the Institute is of the view that serious attention must be paid to enhancing the career development of young physicists. The creation of long-term research positions in universities should be encouraged in order to avoid the current situation whereby many physicists are trapped in a series of successive short-term, low paid appointments. The Institute is, therefore, pleased that the Government recognises these concerns (chapter 2, paragraph 34). The Institute's report on the Career Paths of Physics Post Doctoral Researchers, raised concerns about the substantial minority of individuals taking up post doctoral research positions who go on to become career contract researchers. On 17 November 2000, the Institute held a forum to discuss the situation of physics post doctoral staff in light of the recommendations of the Research Careers Initiative Committee, the Institute's post doctoral report and the concerns regarding the career development prospects for young researchers featured in the White Paper. A report of this meeting is available. It was clear from the discussions in November that many of the policy concerns associated with contract research remain.

  10.  The Institute wholeheartedly concurs with the statement in the White Paper (chapter 1, paragraph 23), that the UK is involved in a global competition for talent and that world class scientific facilities are essential. Thus, the Institute notes with concern that reports that remuneration top-ups will only be available to a small fraction of the research community. The Institute applauds the steps taken to prevent the best researchers from leaving the UK, but urges that the money should be more widespread, as this will not be sufficient to prevent young qualified researchers seeking opportunities overseas.

  11.  The Institute is deeply concerned that the increasing numbers of talented physicists moving into newly emergent sectors are resulting in public sectors finding it increasingly difficult to recruit appropriate staff. The flow of highly qualified workers into emergent high technology sectors is a national strength and must be encouraged, but the shortage elsewhere requires short and long-term solutions and policy planning. In this context the Institute welcomes the Government's plans to attract more overseas scientists and engineers (chapter 2, paragraph 39) to the UK, but in the long-term a sustainable solution is needed that does not rely upon the recruitment of scientists trained at the expense of developing countries. Our national difficulties are severe and immediate. The US is responding to similar pressures. Not only will we be competing for the same pool, many of the talented individuals sought for the US are currently pursuing careers in the UK.

  12.  The Institute wholeheartedly agrees with the statement that Britain must enhance the excellence of its science base (chapter 2, paragraph 1) and as a direct consequence, needs better and more appealing science in its schools (chapter 2, paragraphs 4 and 5). At present far too many children moving to secondary school appear to lose interest in science. The number of women on undergraduate physics courses is only a quarter of the number of men. This is wasted potential and more must be done to encourage girls at a younger age to adopt an interest in the subject.

  13.  The Institute concurs totally with the statement (chapter 2, paragraph 11) that excellent teachers are the key to exciting science in schools, but that too many teachers do not have degrees in the subjects they teach. More needs to be done to attract the best physical science graduates into teaching. The Institute is deeply concerned about the decline in physicists entering teaching and is pleased with the White Paper's recognition of the problems of recruitment and retention of specialist teachers. There is a crisis in physics teacher supply, there are indications of yet a further drop in entrants to PGCE courses and the major impetus towards a solution to this crisis must come from Government. Extra funding is undoubtedly required, especially for mid-career salaries, but some other actions would be possible. The attached table outlines a strategy to encourage recruitment in the physical sciences. If the Committee has any questions concerning the measures proposed, please do not hesitate to contact the Institute.

  14.  The Institute agrees that public support and understanding (chapter 4, paragraph 31) are key components of the process of innovation. The relationship between science and society requires three communities—scientists, the Government and the wider public—to interact together on a basis of mutual understanding. Recent events such as BSE and GM foods have illustrated shortcomings in this interaction. Therefore, the Institute warmly welcomes the White Paper's reference to restoring public confidence in science (chapter 1, paragraph 37), by the Government implementing stronger guidelines from the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) on how scientific advice should be used in developing Government policy and by publishing a new code of practice for scientific advisers to Government; a consultation to which the Institute will forward its response in due course.

  15.  With regard to diversity of excellence in universities (chapter 3, paragraph 6) and the proposals on foundation degrees (chapter 3, paragraph 21), the Institute is conducting an in-depth inquiry into undergraduate physics, chaired by the Institute's President, Sir Peter Williams, which will cover these and other issues. The Inquiry is expected to report in the Summer of 2001.

  16.  The Institute welcomes the Government's intention to clarify CLRC's mission statement and funding arrangements (chapter 2, paragraph 18). The Institute recently expressed its concerns that the financing mechanisms operated by the CLRC were not an effective use of resources nor matched other research council's priorities. The Institute hopes that there will be a re-assessment of the funding base, and looks forward to hearing more of the outcomes following the recent quinquennial review, chaired by the current President of the Institute, Sir Peter Williams.

  17.  The Institute notes the view (chapter 3, paragraph 26), that there are significant differences between different regions, calling for different approaches. The Institute believes the recent North West Science Review has been a valuable exercise, given the difficulties faced by Daresbury Laboratory. It is the clearest example so far of explicitly regional considerations in DTI's science funding. However, if the Science Budget is to reflect regional considerations in future then an open policy debate should be conducted. The Institute remains committed to the principle of funding solely on the basis of "best science".

  18.  In response to the Scottish Science Strategy (chapter 3,) it should be noted that the Scottish Branch of the Institute is actively engaged in dialogue with the Scottish Executive. Similar advice is offered by the Welsh and Irish regional groupings to the regional assemblies and governments.

  19.  (Box page 26) The Institute has been an enthusiastic supporter of NESTA and welcomes the contributions it has made to science and physics in particular. The Institute trusts that NESTA will continue to increase its visibility and ambition.

  20.  In conclusion, the White Paper describes the complex innovation landscape of the UK and the future of the UK as a high-value-added economy. There is repeated and appropriate, emphasis on entrepreneurship and small businesses. Government must not lose sight of the needs of Britain's high-value-added major industries. Prominent in these areas are defence/aerospace and pharmaceuticals. There is much prominence given to underpinning Britain's research strengths in the life sciences. This is deserved. What is lacking is a visible concern for the needs of Britain's high-value-added large businesses founded in the physical sciences such as AEA Technology, UKAEA Fusion, Nortel Networks etc. The DTI maintain support for such vital sectors of the national economy.

  If the Institute is able to assist the Committee further with its inquiry please do not hesitate to contact me.

15 January 2001

26   Science 291, (5501), p33, 5 January 2001. Back

27   International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy. Chaired by Professor Alexander M Bradshaw. Institute of Physics (2000). Back

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