Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the British Computer Society (BCS)


  1.1  The British Computer Society (BCS) is the UK's Chartered Engineering Institution for Information Systems Engineering, with over 38,000 members worldwide. It represents the largest body of practitioners in Science and Engineering in the UK, and a rapidly growing area of the UK economy.

  1.2  The BCS welcomes the opportunity to give evidence relating to the activities of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) and the Royal Society (RS).


  2.1  The RAEng and RS run a number of valuable programmes for the Scientific and Engineering community. They both support programmes including:

    —  Research Professorships;

    —  Research Fellowships, at various levels;

    —  Travel Grants.

  2.2  However there are some distinctive activities, eg the RAEng supports:

    —  industrial secondments for academics;

    —  engineering awareness activities for 14-28 year olds (eg Head Start).

  2.3  Similarly the RS has its own distinctive activities, eg direct funding for research projects, and programmes on public understanding of Science. It has funded important and relevant research, eg on quantum computing.

  2.4  All these activities are worthwhile, and we would not wish to see them curtailed. We are particularly positive about the RAEng's schemes for supporting exchange between Universities and industry, as we believe this encourages better understanding between the two communities.

  2.5  The two bodies also have an important role in advising the Government, and in promoting public understanding of Science and Engineering. We feel that the two bodies are less effective in these areas, and there remains a need for more effective effort to communicate with Government and the public. For example, both bodies need to do more to promote interest in Science and Engineering in schools, to ensure that the UK retains its historic strengths in Science and Engineering, with the concomitant contribution to quality of life and economic health of the Nation.


  3.1  Despite our generally positive views of the RAEng and RS, we are very concerned about the poor representation of modern areas of Science and Engineering. As a consequence the RS and RAEng are not in a position to offer adequately informed advice to the Government, in key areas.

  3.2  We would include topics such as Systems Engineering, nano-technology, and bio-informatics, in a list of "modern" areas of Science and Engineering. However we will focus on computing, as that is the BCS' area of expertise.

  3.3  It is very difficult to find out precisely how many Fellows of the Royal Society have computing as their primary discipline. The Royal Society has advised that the number is 11, although we believe the number to be closer to 20. We would not question their pre-eminence, just that there are so few. By way of illustration, there are 1600 research active academics in computing, based on the last RAE. Physics and Computer Science have similar proportions of 5/5* Departments and one would expect to see proportionately similar representation in the RS. On this basis 80 Fellows of the RS ought to be primarily in computing research.

  3.4  One of the factors which has a heavy influence on the admission to the RS are the criteria for each panel. There is no panel for computing, and those who succeed need to be admitted through the mathematics, physics or engineering panels. There has been a recent International Review of Computer Science undertaken by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The Report of the findings contains a valuable description of what distinguishes Computer Science as a discipline. The RS may find this helpful in ensuring it has relevant criteria when assessing distinction in computing.

  3.5  We are aware that the RS has recently asked University Vice-Chancellors to nominate staff from "under-represented" subjects, but there is an urgent need for more direct action to address the representation of computing.

  3.6  The RAEng has a rather better representation, with 29 Fellows who are Members or Fellows of the BCS. There are perhaps 100 more who have some involvement in computing; however the vast majority of these use computers to support work in their core disciplines, rather than being computing professionals. Thus there are similar problems of under-representation of computing in the RAEng, although not as extreme as in the RS, and the RAEng is addressing the issue, eg by soliciting nominations from the BCS.

  3.7  Our concern is not that there should be representation of computing purely to achieve "parity". However, the RS and RAEng cannot carry out their responsibilities effectively for advising the Government, nor for improving public understanding of computing issues, if they lack adequate access to the expertise. It is essential the two institutions retain their rigorous standards, but adapt their procedures to better reflect the very rapid changes in the emerging disciplines. We are concerned that there is not enough "critical mass", particularly in the RS, to rectify the under-representation of computing by natural evolution in a fast changing world.


  4.1  The RAEng and RS receive about £4 million and £25 million per annum from the Government's Science budget, respectively. We believe that the RAEng gives very good value for money, supporting a comparable level of activity to the RS. Thus, the disparity in funding between the two bodies does not seem justifiable.

  4.2  The work of the two bodies is very important so we would not wish to see a reduction in their activities. Thus we think it essential that the funding for the RS is preserved, and that for the RAEng is increased, particularly for schemes which support interaction between industry and academia.


  5.1  In conclusion we commend the work of the RS and RAEng in supporting Science and Engineering in the UK and advising the Government. Our major concern is the small number of Fellows of either body who represent computing or other "modern" subjects. Also, we observe that the RAEng provides much better value given the level of support from the Government.

  5.2  Thus we recommend:

    (1)  The level of funding for the RS is preserved, but the funding of the RAEng is increased substantially; and

    (2)  Both bodies are asked to put in place (or strengthen) programmes to draw in members from "modern" disciplines, and as a matter of urgency in computing. A review of membership should be held after three years and the level of funding for the bodies reconsidered if no significant increase in numbers from the "modern" disciplines has occurred in this time.

  5.3  We recognise the need to ensure that the high standards of membership of the RS and RAEng are maintained. The BCS is willing to give more support to the two bodies in identifying and assessing candidates of sufficient standing. Alternatively, or in addition, it may be simplest to ask each 5/5* rated Computer Science Department to nominate two or three Fellows to the RS, to "pump prime" the growth in numbers—the international standing of the members of those Departments is already established.

April 2002

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