Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)




  40. Are there barren areas? With the Lottery funding there are areas where people do not have the bottle to go for it or the wherewithal. Do you find that is true in the universities? Are they all up for it?
  (Dr Taylor) One of the reasons why in the first round of SRIF we pushed hard for a relaxation of the university contribution to plans for doing joint projects between institutions was to encourage institutions to think bigger and to make sure they had the space in which they could say, "Hey. By ourselves we could not possibly contemplate doing this, but if two or three of us got together we might and by the way, if we did, would we get a discount in terms of the need for us to find additional funding".

  41. Universities are not well know for working together at that level, in fact the whole system has been to compete with each other. We shall come to the RAE shortly. How has it worked in terms of that?
  (Dr Taylor) The answer is that it is early days, but that is the kind of direction in which we are trying to move and that is the kind of encouragement which we are trying to give to more dialogue and co-operation between departments where it makes sense.
  (Professor King) Your question could also be answered by referring to a common interest of ours, which is football. In the Premier League we do have competition.

  42. You are digging me because we lost on Sunday, are you not?
  (Professor King) Yes. Within the Premier League there is also collaboration about deals with television and so on.

  43. You take my point. If you are not in the Premier Division and you are in Nationwide, you can lose out if you do not have those affiliations. Some universities will seek to work with each other and not with others. Do you accept there is a climate of that? I am just asking how it is working to avoid that kind of competition? In the Regional Development Agency it would make sense for Cambridge, Norwich, Essex to work together. I bet you it does not happen.
  (Dr Taylor) Indeed, as you know, in the North West and also the North East, we have really encouraged the formation of the regional science councils and they have been getting some of the major and minor universities together round the table with other key players in the region. Those two are really good examples of how encouragement for universities in a region to sit around a table and discuss how they can do some things together, which would really make sense for us, is actually paying off.

Mr McWalter

  44. I do think that there are some universities who clearly do not have the inside track when it comes to having the FRSs and so on to push their case and to give them a high profile. Sometimes that comes out in funny ways. For example in the computer science RAE, those universities which did very fundamental computer science tended to do very well in terms of assessment, whereas those who tended to apply computer science, which is less the territory of the FRS, tended to have significantly lower gradings. It does just worry me that with some of the projects, if for instance you have some people with that expertise perhaps really in the front except it is not known by those who are making these decisions like yourselves, what then happen is that their new exciting applied computer project will get marginalised in the process, their bid to get an appropriate facility for it will be downgraded relative to the places where they very much have the inside track. Russell Group universities of whatever. In short, do you think that this whole process is really fair to all the potential stakeholders?
  (Dr Taylor) You have asked quite a complex question. Let me try to tease apart first of all the infrastructure and facilities and then the research grants and the RAE because those are three quite separate strands.

  45. Try to indicate the way the same mechanisms can run through.
  (Dr Taylor) In SRIF the allocation of money for infrastructure is made formulaically to the university and it is a question essentially for the Vice Chancellor and his colleagues as to what kind of infrastructure they intend to produce. We are trying to be available for the dialogue to give our views about the things we think are important. If you take computer science as an example, we have recently conducted an international review of the computer science research that we fund because we really wanted to get a clear outside, overseas reading of where its strengths and weaknesses and so on were. We do not rely on the research assessment exercise for those kinds of things. What we do in the Research Councils is to peer review grant proposals to do particular areas of research. We provide the peer review community for that. That is essentially stand-alone from the RAE exercise. Each one is looked at on its merits and by peers in the community and we work quite hard to try to make sure that peer review process is as good as it could be. We do not allocate Research Council grants according to the RAE standing of the university groups which make the applications.

  46. And it is not the same people doing both.
  (Dr Taylor) You would be surprised if there were not a reasonable correlation between people getting high ratings in the RAE historically and people making grant applications for future work. There is a tremendous dynamic in where groups lie, what departments they are in, what kind of new multi-discipline things are coming along. It is important that you understand that the RAE is a retrospective look at the last five years and the people who were in those places in that time. What we do in the Research Councils is to assess the proposals for people for future work and whether or not it should be funded. The groups which make those proposals may or may not relate closely to the groups which got those ratings in the past.

  47. The closer the correlation gets to one, the more suspicious I am.
  (Dr Taylor) Of what?

  48. Between those different groups. Clearly there would be a correlation; I accept that. If the correlation is in fact that it is the same people or very nearly the same people, that obviously does mean perhaps that diversity, new fields, people, relatively young academics and all those other areas where what we really want to see is the tender shoots being given the appropriate nutrition . . . We are quite conscious that new enterprise can sometimes be strangled at birth and sometimes the form the strangulation takes is not to grant people the appropriate infrastructure.
  (Dr Taylor) Two points are quite important in what you have said there. On the one hand we are trying to keep people talking about groups and departments rather than universities in our community because making blanket statements about whole institutions runs rather counter to the question of where the really best groups are and where new things are starting to happen. The other question which some of my Councils are looking at very carefully, is instead of insisting that each bright young new researcher goes through the process of applying for a grant or getting someone to apply for a small grant for him or her to do what they want to do, in a number of cases, if you take a fairly large, really top class group, then you should be saying to the key people in that group, "You should be taking risks on bright young people on your own account. You should be funded so that you have a certain amount of money so you can say you will let someone work on this idea for 18 months without having to wait 18 months for a grant application".

Dr Iddon

  49. Going back to the Comprehensive Spending Review, we were quite pleased by the last one in that it gave an uplift in science funding. Then we discovered that in the State Departments there had been a consequential downfall in state funding, particularly in MAFF as it was then, and perhaps that made the whole thing negative, which disappointed us. Are you involved in the arguments about state departmental funding as well as overall funding for higher education and everything else?
  (Professor King) Yes. The answer is that in that part of the Spending Review which I was most heavily involved in we were looking at departmental research funding. You raise a very good point. The funding of Departments is static; it did drop from the period of 1986 onwards. It has now risen a bit; it is fairly static. My main point is that we need quality, we need fitness for purpose, we need good advice coming through Departments. Once quality and fitness for purpose are excellent I believe funding will flow much more naturally into those areas. My focus rather has been on getting that side of it right and then arguing for the funding to flow after.

  Dr Iddon: This might be a difficult question for you. Are there any particular State Departments which you are very worried about?


  50. A yes/no will not suffice.
  (Professor King) That is why I am hesitating even to answer.

  51. We would settle for that, if you would say that you are worried.
  (Professor King) The answer is yes.

Dr Iddon

  52. May I turn to higher education funding now which is a particular concern of the Committee? May I say before I begin my questions that I was at Liverpool and had the privilege of opening a 2 million scheme a fortnight ago of newly refurbished laboratories in your old department, in the Robert Robinson laboratories in fact. That was spectacular and it had lifted the morale of the whole department. This refurbishment which is going on is really critical for lifting science in the UK. I just wanted to underline that. I may also say that I saw one of the refurbished teaching authorities and it was spectacular by comparison with the former teaching laboratory and Liverpool has found the money out of the rest of the money we are beginning to talk about now, not from SRIF and JIF funding. That was an interesting visit. Coming to the research assessment exercise, we are very anxious about this. Already I am hearing very serious stories coming out of universities. I am from the North West. I hear a serious story about what is happening to science at Salford. I hear about the potential collapse of some science at UMIST. This morning I have heard that there might be 70 jobs going across the whole university not just in science at Manchester. I put it to you that it is not just a shortfall in the research assessment exercise funding, that was 20 million extra given by the Minister for Higher Education, Margaret Hodge; in fact our report published recently showed that the real figure should be about 206 million. It is not just about the shortfall in funding to meet the new research assessment exercise results last year, but scientists are telling me that in science inflation races ahead of inflation in general. The real losses are greater than the figures suggest. What are you doing to argue with your Treasury colleagues, in what I regard as a crisis now, particularly in my subject, chemistry—yours too, Professor King? I think the same could be said of physics. Are you having any influence on the Treasury with respect to this shortfall in funding?
  (Professor King) First of all let me pick up a very interesting point you make about inflation being higher in the sciences than in other areas. The answer is yes, we are very much aware of this and this point is being made. As we move up in terms of capabilities with computers, in terms of capabilities with the instrumentation, if you want to keep up with the top science happening around the world—nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, for example, get more and more expensive—that argument has been made. There is another argument and I come back to infrastructure. I made the argument at Liverpool and subsequently at Cambridge that a normal building, let us take a building where history is taught for example, requires 2 per cent per annum of its capital cost to be spent on refurbishing it. For a chemistry building, a physics building, materials science building, it is more like 4 per cent. You have to acknowledge that the wear and tear on a building with experimental sciences is greater. That is a problem which had not really been recognised in terms of continuing funding, that modernisation and refurbishment have to be seen as part and parcel of normal expenditure. We are still in the recovery stage and we are very pleased to hear your account of Liverpool, but we are still very much at the recovery stage. In terms of shutting down, I do not think this is all a shortfall on the HEFC funding through the research assessment exercise system. I think another factor is the very worrying factor that the Gareth Roberts report has highlighted, which is the swing against the physical sciences; the number of students registering for degrees in the physical sciences is actually dropping. If we see departments closing, that is the essential driving force. However much the Government decides—and I believe the Government is moving in this direction—that science is worth funding, it is a good investment, if we do not attract young people into science as a career, we are not going to win out in the end. I do see that as a critically important problem.

  53. I hear rumours now that some Vice Chancellors are arguing against the 1.75 ratio of funding in universities. You know what I am talking about. Is there some real pressure from some Vice Chancellors to reduce this 1.75 figure? I do not know whether all my colleagues are aware—I think they are—that science is funded higher by that ratio than the arts subjects and some Vice Chancellors are arguing that the figure be reduced because they are finding it difficult to fund science departments.
  (Dr Taylor) I would not want to speak for Vice Chancellors in general. I am certainly aware in some other non-science research environments that people are saying they need more expensive infrastructure to do, for example, some of their creative design or arts and humanities research. It may be that people from other disciplines are arguing that the costs of their research and the infrastructure needed for the research are becoming more expensive than they traditionally have been thought of. They are no longer just paper and pencil or library based activities. Just a couple of points on the RAE situation. It is very important to remember that the process of allocating the grades and the process of plugging those grades into a formula which decides an allocation to a university are separable processes. The cycle of the five-year RAE process of assessing those grades is not particularly closely coupled to the cycle of the Spending Review, providing money to operate that formula. That has been a very clear open situation. It is very clear that in the last Spending Review, there was no provision for anticipating the review at this stage. There is a cycle synchronisation issue. The issues you describe are central to some of the cost cutting review debates. We are very exercised about how that part of the dual funding system should proceed. It is also very important to remember that the formula produces a grant which is given to the university, to the Vice Chancellor, for he or she to allocate as they judge fit. So there is no real close coupling between a five-star department which got a five-star rating and funding which flows to that department in the next five-year cycle as a result of that. It is entirely at the Vice Chancellor's discretion and decision.

  54. There are also rumours circulating that we ought to support 20 chemistry departments. I just take chemistry because that is a subject I know well. You could translate these arguments to physics and the other sciences I guess. Some people are saying now that there ought to be 20 chemistry departments around the country and that is all we can afford to support with the current amount of money. I would put it to you that with local industry and more students living at home now, we have to have a chemistry department to which all the potential students can travel. Would you resist this argument as I do?
  (Professor King) We are now talking at the level of what is a university. If you start axing core subject departments from universities you are beginning to attack that problem. You will not be surprised to hear that I am tending to favour your position. At the same time, we have to recognise that if student demand is not there, we are not going to keep the departments all open. So I come back to the demand from students being a critical factor. We are covering two questions here, which is research support, which is what John and I are really here to talk about, and teaching support. It is the educational side which we would all want to see in our universities in the round in the regions and around the country. There are two issues: one is education and the other is research.

  55. Do you think we are returning to the binary divide? I was one of these people who resisted the argument that all polytechnics, irrespective of quality, should be converted into universities. I think I was right, because I now see that we are creating a new binary divide in the university system. With over 100 universities we are concentrating the money and concentrating the other resources and concentrating the best students in fewer and fewer universities, leaving a trail behind which is converting us back to the binary divide, which I think would be disastrous.
  (Professor King) It would be disastrous to return to the system we had before. What I would say is that an aspect of the research assessment exercise which I supported very strongly at the time and I still think was right, was the department by department evaluation rather than institution by institution. If you go back to the point where the RAE was introduced that was what was under debate, whether there would be a list of top 16 or top 20 universities. That did not follow through and what we have had is a considerably better system, because it has allowed departments to evolve. What has evolved in the United Kingdom is now a very effective research system in our universities. I would certainly defend that. If you then ask whether we are slipping back to a binary divide because willy-nilly we have now got a Russell group of universities, there are universities which have many more five-star departments than others, there is a bit of a divide developing. This is a subject for discussion and debate now. Where is the research assessment exercise going? Did the RAE serve its purpose, get us to the position we are at now and now we have to re-examine the whole issue? I think the answer is yes, we do need to re-examine it.


  56. You will know that we just put out a report which has really struck a chord with the academic community anyway, not particularly with Howard Newby at the minute, but certainly with the academic community. Just to follow up on the business of department funding, you talked about fitness of purpose and the funding will follow. That does suggest you might miss out in the current round of the Comprehensive Spending Review as far as some departmental budgets are concerned. Is that right?
  (Professor King) Thank you; I may have been misunderstood. I am pushing for quality and fitness of purpose and the reason I mentioned fitness of purpose is that if we take the research assessment exercise, there it was international quality of research which was the metric. We cannot simply apply the same metric to Government Departments because there the other factor is fitness for purpose. We are trying to determine ways of achieving what was achieved through the research assessment exercise with Government Departments but now taking account of fitness of purpose. I do not want to suggest that I am therefore indicating that we should see a fall in research funding or science funding for all Government Departments. Far from it. I am trying to say that we are going to raise the level, both from the quality and fitness of purpose viewpoint and therefore this justifies further funding.

Mr McWalter

  57. I should like to ask some questions about the actual operation of the Department. The DTI set out various objectives and targets called public service agreements which were published after each Spending Review. Only two of your 12 targets seem to apply directly to the Office of Science and Technology. One is to improve the overall international ranking of the UK science and engineering base—target 5—and target 6 is to increase the level of exploitation of technological knowledge derived from the science and engineering base. It is basically: get higher in the rankings and do more exploitation. These are of a pretty general nature. Do you yourselves, as opposed to the Department of Trade and Industry, actually have more detailed performance targets than these?
  (Professor King) We are of course within the Department of Trade and Industry and we have been heavily involved in the restructuring of the Department which is taking place. Certainly if you read through the other objectives of the Department in its restructured phase, you will see that innovation is very high on the agenda: the emergence of the notion of successful exploitation of new ideas in UK business and the emphasis on use of our strength in the science, engineering and technology base to further the process of innovation and to strengthen the research base in industry.

  58. Wherever I see the word "innovation" as in Innovation Group, it is really science and technology, is it?
  (Professor King) Yes. Interestingly the group was originally called Science, Engineering and Technology Innovation. The Secretary of State decided that one word was enough for each of the new groups. Many of us had some sympathy with that. Certainly the Innovation Group which is the new group in the DTI is focused on the pull of new technologies, new science, emerging from the science and engineering base.
  (Dr Taylor) I was asked to lead the process of helping to design the Innovation Group. This model of science push/industry pull is one of the key things this is designed around. We felt it was really important to get somebody at Director General level in the DTI whose job is focused around innovation. Innovation is much more widely drawn than just science and technology, but science and technology is a key part of that process. The new Director General will also be the Chief Scientist or technologist or engineer, whichever, of the DTI. The DTI has not had such a position for quite a long time. The process of how new industry in the UK, growing industry in the UK, really pulls not only on the UK science base, but the global science base, is one of the key things that the Innovation Group needs to work on. Certainly Dave King and I are committed to working on this new Knowledge Transfer Steering Group with the new DG and the DG of business in DTI to co-manage this science push/industry pull process in a much more coherent way than perhaps we have managed to do so far.

  59. So there is a new restructured DTI which has science and technology much more in its centre and at its core, although it has got shy about it and does not actually make that clear any more. You talked about the DTI's targets in this restructured state but have these objectives in the light of that been re-issued since the restructuring or do you still have the bland 12. Because of the restructuring you obviously have a greater sense of purpose. How have you changed those objectives? Are they in draft somewhere or in a secret document that we are not allowed to look at?
  (Dr Taylor) The process which is going on at the moment is that the new organisation has just been launched and it is just getting into its first planning cycle, its first strategy cycle. It is going to have a new strategy board, it is going to have a new executive board and so on. That process is something which needs to be worked through internally in DTI and externally with Treasury and the other interested bodies. I would not expect the new structure to have suddenly produced some new PSAs out of the blue. That is a process which will take a year or more.


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