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


Memorandum submitted by the Royal Society of Chemistry

  1.  The RSC welcomes the results of the Research Assessment Exercise published in December 2001. The significant increases in the proportion of chemistry research units rated as 5 and 5* is a cause for celebration. In the 1992 exercise 7 departments out of 67 were rated as grade 5, in 1996 11 out of 59 were rated as 5 or 5*, and in 2001 19 out of 45 departments were rated 5 or 5*. The proportion of researchers working in 5 or 5* departments has risen from 19.2 per cent in 1992 to 57.0 per cent in 2001. The RSC welcomes this increase. Furthermore we feel strongly that the 2001 figures more accurately reflect the true international standing of UK research in chemistry as shown by bibliometric measures.

  2.  The RSC notes that the improvement in the overall quality of the research in chemistry has taken place against a background of improving quality in virtually all units of assessment. In 1992, 22.0 percent of researchers worked in grade 5 cost centres whilst in 2001 54.7 per cent of researchers worked in 5 or 5* graded departments. The RSC suggests that part of this improvement is real and part is due to an improvement in the operation of the RAE, most especially in the way in which judgements are made of what is international quality research. We are not of the opinion that there has been significant grade inflation in the operation of the RAE.

  3.  It is noteworthy that the total number of chemistry cost centres entering the RAE has fallen by 18 since 1992. However, the number of chemistry researchers entered has only fallen from 1388 to 1300 over the same time period. Taking these data together we see that this reflects an increase in the average size of chemistry departments. The data also indicate that in chemistry high quality research is more easily achievable in larger cost centres. This is understandable because many aspects of chemistry research rely on expensive shared facilities that may not be available, or rather may not be affordable, in smaller research units. Also, chemistry has benefited from the infrastructure funds that have been made available recently, and the improvement in facilities that this has brought about will result in improvements in both the quality of the research environment and in morale. Chemistry also requires a high staff input into teaching and hence individual teaching loads are higher in smaller units, which means that the time available for research becomes too little for individuals to make a significant impact.

  4.  The RSC notes that the reduction in the number of chemistry research units entered in the 2001 RAE results from a combination of two factors. These are the chemistry department closures that have occurred (in both the new and old university sectors) and the fact that some research groups have been entered into units of assessment that are not defined as chemistry. Departments that were unlikely to do well in the chemistry unit of assessment did not enter the exercise—thus there were no departments rated at grade 1 or 2 in 2001. The key issue to note here is that on this basis there has been a 27 per cent reduction in the number of universities recognised as having a coherent chemistry research programme. Similar changes in the same direction have occurred in physics.

  5.  The RSC is concerned that the 11 chemistry research cost centres that were rated 3b and 3a in the 2001 exercise may be vulnerable to closure. This possibility will become a reality if funding council research monies are only assigned to 4, 5 and 5* departments. Whereas closure of all 3-rated departments will not affect a very large number of academics (163 researchers work in 3b and 3a rated chemistry departments), such a closure programme would reduce the number of chemistry departments to 34. The RSC believes that it is unlikely that universities would maintain an undergraduate teaching programme in chemistry to honours degree level in these vulnerable departments if there were essentially no research activity.

  6.  Consequently, were there to be a further round of chemistry department closures as a direct consequence of the 2001 RAE exercise, then this could result in areas of the country where is it would become difficult to study chemistry at undergraduate level at all. Currently there is there is no overall national strategy for the provision of undergraduate places. The UK needs a better technologically educated population, but whilst current policies do appear to be leading to an improvement in research, there may be a concomitant "knock-on" effect on the provision of undergraduate courses in chemistry. Similar pressures are likely to be experienced by other physical science and engineering disciplines.

  7.  The RSC accepts that relative to the amount of money available for research through the funding councils the direct cost of the RAE to HEFCE and the other funding councils is small. However, these costs do exclude the costs that the universities have to bear. In addition the administrative burden on universities in terms of time is high. A reduction in that administrative burden would be welcomed.

  8.  Nevertheless, the RSC believes that some form research assessment should continue. Having gone down a path of differential funding to reward high quality work, the UK cannot afford to stick with the picture of research as revealed in 2001.

  9.  Proposals have been put forward that perhaps 5 and 5* rated departments should not need again to submit to an RAE exercise for a period of at least five years, or at least that a "light touch" approach should be used next time for these cost centres. Given the success of the RAE process in improving the quality of UK research, any policy that does not explicitly include top rated departments in the future would in fact result in the majority of UK researchers not being included in the exercise. This would almost certainly have undesirable effects through reducing accountability for a large proportion of the funds allocated as a result of the RAE. In addition, if the next RAE exercise were not to be undertaken during (say) the next ten years, then complacency amongst the top rated departments would be the likely outcome, not to mention that currently lower rated units would not be rewarded for improvements. The RSC believes that running a full exercise in about seven years time could be a good compromise. A smaller scale exercise could also be run in four years' time, whereby lower rated departments only might be assessed in an attempt to see if they yet justify a higher grading.

  10.  It is our contention that the UK university system has responded to the demand placed upon it by the UK government that it should improve the quality of its research output. The RSC also believes that UK universities' research is good value for money and compares very well with our economic rivals. However, the genuine improvements achieved must not be allowed to stagnate. Using current algorithms and no increase in overall funding, it is our understanding that the large increase in research quality observed could paradoxically lead to some of these cost centres receiving less research funds for the academic year 2002-03 than 2001-02. This would be a wholly unacceptable outcome, guaranteed to produce cynicism and a lowering of morale. The RSC believes strongly that departments currently rated 3b and 3a should receive some research funding support. This is not an onerous request—in fact, even now 3-rated departments receive only a small proportion of the funds available for research through the Funding Councils. However, because of the effects that even a small level of funding to 3-level cost centres could have on support for higher rated Departments, the RSC considers it is essential that the Science and Technology Select Committee should argue for increases in the overall levels of support funding for UK universities.

  11.  Currently much emphasis is placed on the interfaces those chemistry shares with biology, health and materials science. In order to continue to build these interfaces, which will have a direct bearing on the health of the nation's citizens and economy, the strengths identified by the RAE in core chemistry should be built upon. The UK spends a relatively low proportion of GDP on research in comparison to our G8 competitors. University researchers in the UK have done well and the quality has improved substantially. The corollary is that they deserve enhanced funding in order to continue the improvements already made in the quality and quantity of output.

January 2002

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