Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr J R Fry, University of Liverpool

  The Committee has invited evidence on the following points, addressed in turn:

    —  The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to RAE ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments;

  The teaching of undergraduate science subjects in universities is not adequately funded, and historically it has been subsidised by income from research. Given the recent trend for research income to be sharply focussed on subjects with RAE grades of 5 and above, university managements are increasingly taking a commercial approach to the viability of individual subjects. In the short term this has put at risk science departments with RAE ratings of 4 and below. In the longer term even top-rated science departments may be at risk if they have few students, because of the need for the cross subsidy from research. The most useful form of assessment of the quality of a department, or subject area, would be on the basis of the contribution made by the whole department, both teaching and research—but this assumes adequate funding for both!

    —  The desirability of increasing the concentration of research in a small number of university departments, and the consequences of such a trend;

  There is merit in better resourcing a number of highly-rated departments so that they may compete in research on equal terms with the best in the world—usually in the USA—but this must not be done at the expense of less highly-rated ones; additional money is required. Whilst the RAE rating gives a measure of the international dimension of research, it does not pretend to measure its utility or its importance in a regional setting. If money is switched from low RAE-score departments to high ones, then the danger is that all regionally-useful research will be lost. Moreover, because of the cross-subsidy of teaching from research funds, a reduction in research funding may lead to the loss of a good teaching unit and the very useful graduates produced.

    —  The implications for university science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula;

  The weighting given to science subjects is woefully inadequate given the high cost of providing and maintaining up-to-date teaching laboratories, and needs to be substantially increased, but an additional concern is the small numbers of students in some science departments. This limits the overall "formula funding" to the department unless the university is prepared to cross subsidise from its other activities. This point is further addressed under "regional capacity".

    —  The optimal balance between teaching and research provision in universities, giving particular consideration to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science departments;

  Research (at university level) and experimentation (at secondary-school level) are of inestimable benefit to the teaching of science. Science is a living, developing subject where progress is made by observing, measuring and trying things out—and making mistakes. It is not just that research know-how and equipment is used in project work at all levels of undergraduate teaching—although this is of great benefit—nor that research at the frontiers of knowledge often gives insight into the understanding of elementary science, but that the pursuit of knowledge through research communicates the inspiration, excitement and motivation to students—and also humility and doggedness—that is an essential part of their ongoing education. A teaching-only university science department would be a sad, moribund affair. If there is a need to teach science to undergraduates as part of a more general education than the traditional single-honours degree, then money should be put into the development of more generalised degrees—but the teaching should be done by research-led faculty.

    —  The importance of maintaining a regional capacity in university science teaching and research;

  Here in Liverpool, local secondary schools rely on staff from the university science departments to keep them up to date, to give special-interest lectures to, and run laboratory projects and science fairs for, their (mainly 6th form) pupils, and to advise and guide them on the more modern and more difficult aspects of A-level work, as well as contributing strongly to (eg Institute of Physics) programmes of talks and lectures. [Others will describe the context in which advice is given to local industry and joint work is done.] An item which you have not mentioned is inter-disciplinary science within a university. If a particular subject is cut—because the international appreciation of research in that area is not high enough—then the contribution of staff to work in other departments may suffer very badly. Here in Liverpool there is growing inter-disciplinary work within the science faculty and between the faculties of science and medicine, with strong regional components. Finally, as the problem of student debt increases there will be financial pressure, particularly on those from poorer backgrounds, to study at a university close to home. It would be unfortunate in very many ways if such students were deterred from studying science because the department of choice at their local university had been closed.

    —  The extent to which the Government should intervene to ensure continuing provision of subjects of strategic, national, or regional importance; and the mechanisms it should use for this purpose.

  Where the subject provision is of "strategic, national, or regional importance" then it is obviously necessary to safeguard it. The problem is to determine the level of importance, the cost, and who will make up the shortfall in funding. What is probably needed is a broad measure of "importance", with some local assessment from schools and industry together with an assessment of the contribution of both research and teaching towards meeting regional and national goals, and some assessment of the damage that might occur (eg deterring students from poorer backgrounds from studying science) if the subject were lost locally through closure of the department. There is also the problem of university autonomy to address if funds are targeted.

January 2005

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