Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 199-213)



  Chairman: Can I welcome the third of our witnesses this afternoon, the Royal Society of Chemistry. Some of us, of course, know each other quite well from meetings we have done through you having the Select Committee along and you have helped us in our work . You have helped us in our work, and we are glad to see you back here helping with this particular inquiry. Brian has a statement to make.


  Dr Iddon: Chairman, could I declare an interest. I am a Fellow of the Society and I shall not take part in the proceedings.

  Chairman: Right. Thank you very much, let us start with Des in that case.

Dr Turner

  199. The Royal Society does not like to take the Government's shilling for fear of compromising your independence and yet you are happy to accept rent free accommodation in Burlington House which is a pretty choice piece of inner London real estate which must have quite a considerable value, I have no idea what it is, perhaps you could tell us what the rent free status is worth in hard cash?
  (Dr Giachardi) Thank you. It is very hard to answer that question because although part of it is very elegant indeed, there are parts of it, where Mrs Steele works, for example, in the basement, which are extremely unpleasant. While I cannot answer the question as you phrase it, I would make a couple of observations. We have spent, in the last two or three years, well north of half a million pounds on refurbishing the building to the exacting standards of English Heritage, and that has entirely been done out of our own money, out of our member's money. It is a very complex issue. We had a long running discussion with what I suppose is now the Department of Local Government and the Regions, what was DETR and DLTR, about tenancy status there. We are doing that in conjunction with the other learned societies that live around the courtyard. We have been there since the middle of the 19th Century and the dispute is whether we are tenants at will or have rights of estoppel. We, the five learned societies, have agreed to club together to put some money down to actually test this in the courts. I cannot answer the question what the rental value would be but we have spent a lot of our own money restoring the fabric, as I say, to the exacting standards of English Heritage.

  200. If rent-free status were to be withdrawn presumably it would make a considerable difference to your finances?
  (Dr Giachardi) It would be very serious. In the pack that has been left, or has been distributed, you will see that our budget for this year is roughly break even and were somebody to ask us to pay a significant amount of rent I am afraid that would be money that we could not spend out of our own resources on, for example, things like education.

  201. So in effect you do receive some indirect government subsidy so it does not quite square with your somewhat bullish attitude towards government funding, does it? Do you really think it compromises you to have Government funding?
  (Dr Giachardi) I think it has been around for so long that I do not think it does.

  202. Right. You say that you act in an advisory capacity for Government and you think this is a core activity, hence your need you feel to be financially independent of Government, but this cannot be said, of course, of the Royal Society or the Royal Academy of Engineering. Do you think the fact that they are to a large degree dependent on government finance affects their advice to Government in any deleterious way?
  (Dr Giachardi) I think what one has to deal with here is the difference between what is probably reality and what is perception. The reason that we do not want any money is because I would be horrified to think were we to get any government money, and we do not want any, were we to give advice it was actually compromised by the amount of money, but it would be perfectly possible for today's media to make the point that it was and once that hare has started running it is a very difficult one to stop. I have no idea what goes on in the Royal Society and I would not dream of treading on their toes, but while we are in a financial position at the moment to do what we do, and I hope our advice to Government in various forms is valued, that we can do that in the way that we do at the moment.

  203. If Government were to offer you funding to operate a Research Fellowship scheme, would you consider taking it? Would you consider that as something quite separate from your other activities? Would you be prepared to do it? Would you be interested?
  (Dr Giachardi) In terms of government money, again in the pack there is a listing of what we have had by direct funding, which is very small numbers, and what we have had by specific contracts we have won in open competition where we have a specific expertise. If we did not have expertise in education in chemistry we would not be doing our job but those have been won in open contract. In terms of running a Fellowship scheme, the first observation I would make is we are not geared up to do that. We just do not have the mechanisms in place to do that. I would be a bit reluctant to do that because I would not want to get into the position of our particular Society being seen, and again it is about perception, to favour one particular university relative to another. The world of chemistry is in some difficulty at the moment anyway. However independent the committee we set up were to be, I would not want to be seen to be in the middle of something that was difficult. As I say, we are not geared up for that at the moment.


  204. But you have got the Research Assessment Exercise which would be quite good guidance in terms of where you allocated the money. We asked the previous group of witnesses if they had looked at the allocation of, for example, the Royal Society fellowships a" la grade five and five star departments and if there was a correlation that would be good way to start. I would look at how many a university had and allocate them there. Would that not be a way that would make you appear neutral if there was a different exercise to relate the departments one to the other?
  (Dr Giachardi) I accept the point but it is not obvious to me why if one is going to have chemistry fellowships they necessarily could not come through EPSRC, for example.

  205. That is a point we have made, of course. There are two mechanisms in operation, how do they differ from each other?
  (Dr Giachardi) The answer is I do not know but there may be some benefit in a plurality of mechanisms. I doubt there is merit in three levels of mechanism.

Dr Murrison

  206. You are very active in public communication and understanding of science. I was wondering if you think that all learned societies can play a role in this work or would it be better done in a collective way?
  (Dr Giachardi) In many cases it is. I think by common agreement there is a problem in public perception and understanding and appreciation of science, science and engineering for that matter. It is a real tragedy that in the country today everybody walking on the streets accepts the benefits that they derive from the advances in science and engineering in terms of quality of life, the fact that our cars work better, our aeroplanes are safer, that we have better health care, and yet science does not have a very good public image. We try and do our best from the chemical viewpoint to get the message across but where appropriate we do it with other bodies depending on what the message is either on a bilateral basis, let us say with the Institute of Physics or the Institute of Biology, or indeed the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, or on a multilateral basis. It depends what is appropriate, what particular message one is trying to get across. I think what you should not go away with is the impression that the various institutions, the various learned societies and others do not talk to each other, they do.

  207. In that respect, what role do you think Copus has to play and do you think it is fulfilling that role?
  (Dr Giachardi) I think Copus was set up some time ago when the need was first recognised. It is probably appropriate to revisit it and think whether the duties it had at the time have been fulfilled and it should move on, and I would leave that to others to judge. I think the attitude I would take is when it was first set up it was "Copus" with a `u', understanding. One of the great problems with scientists unless they have gone down a different role in life, a bit like I have, is they have a linear understanding of how science develops and that is not necessarily what the public wants to know. I would use the word "appreciation" or some word like that, why the world in which we live is better because of the activities of science. That does not mean you need to understand quantum theory.

  208. Thank you. Can I just draw you on an issue that was raised earlier because I have a particular interest in accommodation. Would you not agree with me that the rent-free accommodation that you receive is core funding by another name?
  (Dr Giachardi) I am not sure that I would agree with that but if that is the perception you want to put on it, so be it. What I would say is however you put it up, it does not compromise our independence. If it were not rent-free it would be down to the landlord to do the refurbishment that we have done at our own cost.


  209. Let me follow that up. I am sure somebody in this Committee would have asked if they were able but it is rumoured that there are chemistry departments closing in this country despite the influx of money into the sciences that the Government has made available. Have you spoken out against this publicly?
  (Dr Giachardi) Yes. I have written to The Times, although sadly it did not get published. It is a very mixed message. We are concerned about the closure of departments but it is also the case that we need to think about how many high quality departments this country can maintain because there is no point in having departments unless they are high quality and that is a very real issue. Undergraduate numbers over the last five years or so have gone down by about 25, 26 per cent although they are higher now than they were in the 1970s. The issue that we face is that at A level numbers have gone up surprisingly, and I will explain why I say surprisingly in a second, but that is not feeding through into undergraduate numbers because a lot of people are reading chemistry at A level in order to study medicine and topics like that. The problem we have at A level, although the numbers are going up slightly, is that A level chemistry, and for that matter physics, is a grade to two grades harder than some other subjects, certainly liberal arts subjects, and if you go to an institute of education you will get them to confirm that analytically and unfortunately the kids know that anecdotally. That is a real problem for us.

  210. You do not think—you can probably see my question coming now—that you are compromised in some way in speaking out against Government either because that is not your style to do that, you act in a different manner, or else you feel compromised by this rent-free tied cottage that you have got in part of London?
  (Dr Giachardi) No, we will say what we think. We do not feel compromised by that. We have been quite robust in all sorts of areas on this. That having been said, it may be the case that there needs to be some concentration of chemistry departments. The danger that we must not fall into, and it is very frequently said by commentators both in this place and in the media, is that the country needs X numbers of graduates or X number of PhDs. That treats the study of chemistry as a purely vocational discipline and that is an attitude I do not take. Chemistry is very interesting for its own sake and if somebody, for example, reads a chemistry degree at one of the better universities in the country, gets a First and goes off into the City, is that a waste? I think the answer is no. Why do I say that, because it is somebody getting into a position of influence who actually has a scientific background. When I say science, that could include engineering. We have a population out there which is illiterate/hostile to science and engineering and the more people we can get out there who have gone through the mill, even if they are doing something completely different in the city, in Government, in whatever, the better.

Mr Heath

  211. You say that you spend 1 million a year in support of teaching in schools, what form does that take, what are you actually doing?
  (Dr Giachardi) It is a variety of things and I will ask Mrs Steele to comment in a second because she is very close to it. We spend that amount of money developing curriculum material. We mentioned in the paper CPD support. There is a variety of things that we publish. There are some things in the pack, including a document such as this, which is also in the pack, which goes to all secondary schools in the country ten times a year I think it is. There is a whole variety of other things which we feel we are well placed to do because we can bring together lots of volunteer support which in many other circumstances it is easier for us to do than many other people because we have some very good networks of people. Every year we have a teacher fellow who is on secondment from his or her school on a sort of sabbatical and we pay them typically to write some curriculum material, do some work like that, and that is then frequently distributed free. Could I perhaps ask Mrs Steele to comment.
  (Mrs Steele) We have a whole host of activities that we do for education. When I talk about education I think I would extend it from five to 65 going right through to our professional members. In terms of the initiatives for schools, as Dr Giachardi has already alluded to, we have curriculum support materials for the teachers which also aids the actual pupils. We also do a lot of continuing of professional advancement for teachers in terms of taking them on industry study tours, there are summer schools that run covering a whole range of things, particularly things like new chemical techniques, they get up to speed on things they may not even have covered in their own degrees. We produce a whole host of career materials which again we do try to do collaboratively with other organisations as and when appropriate. We attend careers events to give further advice. We have an excellent website, which again we try to enhance for students. At the moment it gives a lot of good information for teachers and we hope to enhance that for students' use as well. We not only support teachers in schools and colleges but also in higher education and, again, we support the lecturers as well the students and we produce materials for postgraduate students. We are currently producing materials for undergraduate students. We run workshops to help lecturers to keep them up to date. We have a range of initiatives. For our professional members the education continues and we have things like analytical chemistry by open learning, we have developed courses in that area. We are working with SEEDA, the regional development agency, on a biopharm skills course that is going to be made available this year. We are trying to get funding at the moment to develop another analytical science degree by open learning which has associated CPD courses. We have a range of things going from five to 65.

  212. That is admirable but the school curriculum is still stuck with the flame test and titration, is it not?
  (Mrs Steele) And we are working very hard in that area. We have already tried to make some changes and have succeeded. The way that we have done that is by seeing where there is a need to change the curriculum, such as putting in new chemical techniques so students are aware of what is happening in industry and research at the moment. We have done that by first of all producing the materials, training the teachers and then working with the appropriate agency, QCA etc., to get the curriculum changed. We have found that it is much more successful producing the materials and the training before asking to get things changed within the curriculum. We are currently working with QCA on Key Stage 3, changes to that. We have had significant input at all levels. We answer consultation documents regularly. In fact, I just finished one for QAA this morning. We do have significant input to all government departments.


  213. Thank you very much. Sadly we have to come to an end but can I just say we do look forward to the Links Day that you are running in Parliament and I am sure it will be well supported. It has a strong tradition in developing science among the political community in this Palace of ours. Thank you very much for that work and for coming here today.
  (Dr Giachardi) Can I say thank you very much, we are also looking forward to Links Day. We greatly value the Links Scheme and the two-way communication we have and we greatly appreciate the opportunity to talk to this Committee.

  Chairman: Thank you.


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