Memorandum from Save British Science Society
1. Save British Science is pleased to submit
this evidence to the committee's inquiry into strategic science
provision. SBS is a voluntary organisation campaigning for the
health of science and technology throughout UK society, and is
supported by over 1,500 individual members, and some 70 institutional
members, including universities, learned societies, venture capitalists,
financiers, industrial companies and publishers.
2. We deal with each of the Committee's
points in turn.
3. Following the Research Assessment Exercise
in 2001, HEFCE summarily cut funding for departments rated as
nationally excellent. The contract the universities believed they
had been promised was broken. It turned out to be untrue that
by working hard to improve the rating of a department previously
graded 3 in the exercise, a university would be rewarded. It appeared
that nationally excellent research is no longer considered worthy
4. It is no longer possible to sustain a
science department on teaching funding alone, as we describe below
when dealing with the implications of changing the weightings
given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula.
5. This means that, without some research
investment, it is practically impossible to sustain a department
in a subject such as engineering, chemistry, physics or biology.
It is certainly impossible for an individual university to sustain
a portfolio of sciences.
6. It is still possible to sustain at least
some arts or humanities departments without research funding,
so cutting funding for nationally-excellent research in these
fields, while just as undesirable in itself as cutting science
departments' funding, has not had the same immediate effect on
the viability of departments.
7. Although it is too late to change the
past, we feel it is important to analyse the events that led to
the cutting of funding for nationally-excellent departments. The
reason given was that average gradings had increased and that,
within finite financial limits, it was not possible to maintain
absolute levels of funding for each grade.
8. While this was clearly arithmetically
true, it was hardly a secret that ratings were likely to increase
on average. Raising standards is, after all, seen as part of the
point of the exercise. Moreover, the empirical evidence was that
grades increased in every previous assessment. HEFCE could, and
should, have planned for this.
9. The tens of millions of pounds that were
used on the unsuccessful e-university would have made a good starting
point as a source of funds to ensure that nationally-excellent
research was preserved.
10. At a time when the costs of doing some
kinds of research are becoming enormous, the concentration of
research is to some extent inevitable. Only a small number of
institutions can carry out expensive particle physics, for example,
and only a small number of institutions will be able to rival
the world's best across a broad range of disciplines.
11. However, the current policy appears
to be to concentrate all scientific and engineering research in
an ever-decreasing number of departments, even though the overall
number of higher education institutions is increasing.
12. There will be two main consequences,
one concerned with the long-term health of the science base, and
the other concerning the quality of educational experience for
The effect on research
13. Although there may be short-term gains
in concentrating all research in a few hands, in the longer term,
the science base will suffer. The system will tend to ossify,
with the established agendas of the research giants becoming fixed;
there will be little or no possibility of funding novel ideas
falling outside the orthodoxy.
14. The Government has chosen to compare
the research system with football, describing a scheme to attract
good researchers by paying them more as a hunt for "the David
Beckhams of science".
Leaving aside the fact that Beckham is paid more for each 90-minute
football match than a university researcher earns in a year, the
analogy had some merit.
15. Beckham had his first professional games
in 1994, with Preston North End Football Club, then in the third
division of the Football League. Similarly, Les Ferdinand, who
played for Queen's Park Rangers, then Newcastle, then Tottenham
Hotspur, began his career with the non-league team Hayes. These
lower-ranking clubs did not have the wealth of the richer clubs,
but they did have the basic resources to allow the future stars
to practice their profession.
16. Just as the Premier League in football
depends on the lower divisions for new talent, so the research
league depends not only on the departments that have already proved
themselves to be internationally excellent, but also on those
that have the basic resources to allow people to develop, and
which may have the potential to be promoted into the research
17. For this reason, mechanisms for allocating
public resources for research need to be allocated selectively,
but the degree of selectivity needs to allow for groups with potential
as well as groups that are already excellent.
The effect on teaching
18. If research is concentrated into a handful
of institutions, it will no longer be possible for many, if not
most, students to study science in a research department. It may
not be possible for them to study science at all, and there are
already large parts of the country that where it is no longer
possible to study physics.
19. But even if it proved possible for many
institutions to maintain teaching departments in which no research
took place, there would still be a problem. It is not possible
to learn science without doing serious practical work, which requires
appropriate infrastructure. Final year honours projects rely on
the availability of active researchers to supervise them, and
on the availability of suitable equipment. If research becomes
highly concentrated, a large proportion of students will not be
taught in an atmosphere of discovery, and will not be familiar
with research techniques.
20. Scientific industry, such as the pharmaceutical
industry, relies on a supply of well-trained scientists who are
not going to be the next Einstein, but who do need proper research
training. This workforce cannot be delivered if most universities
simply do not undertake scientific research at a significant level.
21. The changes in weightings are an unmitigated
disaster. There was no justification for them at all, and they
are contrary to the Government's stated policy of making the UK
one of the best places in the world to do science. Decision-makers
at HEFCE should acknowledge that they have made a mistake, and
should correct the weightings to reflect some kind of reality.
22. The current situation is that, even
when student recruitment is buoyant, teaching many science subjects
is not now viable without the back-up of substantial research
funding, as the case of chemistry at Exeter shows very starkly.
This is not the situation for classroom-based subjects such as
law, English literature or business studies, where there are many
departments that continue to prosper despite having very little
or no research funding.
23. With a limited total quantum of money
available, and in the certainty that there will never be sufficient
resources available to meet all demands, HEFCE has essentially
two courses of action available to it.
24. The first is to distribute the pain
equally among subjects, so that there is a level playing field
among disciplines with no inherent bias in favour of or against
any one subject or set of subjects. No hard data exist to say
what the relevant ratios would be under this system, which is
itself a fault on the part of HEFCE. However, the old weightings
(under which students in laboratory-based subjects were funded
at twice the level of those in library-based subjects) clearly
gave a closer approximation than the current ratios.
25. The second potential model would be
to weight funding in favour of subjects of national importance,
judged according to the needs of the economy, likely shortages,
the desirability of maintaining a presence in a variety of fields,
and so on. Under this model, science and engineering subjects
would, on average, fair substantially better than other disciplines,
as would some languages and vocational degrees.
26. Although there is a clear argument for
taxpayers' money being disproportionately focused on subjects
of national importance, SBS would not currently advocate this
27. We do not believe science and engineering
should be subject to special pleading, but that they should be
funded on a level playing field with other disciplines. The recent
changes have tipped the balance against science and engineering,
with no justification and no obvious benefit.
28. Partly because of changes in the funding
model, undergraduate students increasingly need to live with their
families while studying. Many are likely to graduate with substantial
debts, and the financial saving of living at home makes the difference
between being able to go to university or not doing so.
29. For this reason, it is matter of fair
access that provision should be made across the whole country
for students to study important subjects, including (but not exclusively)
science and engineering.
30. Although the Government chooses to assert
that universities are independent bodies and that it has no power
to intervene in their affairs, it is patently nonsense that when
taxpayers' money is being distributed on an annual basis, the
executive branch of government is somehow powerless to exert strong
influence on Vice Chancellors and others.
31. That ministers know this to be the case
was made clear when a former Secretary of State referred to his
"letter of direction" to the Higher Education Funding
Council. When the Council's chief executive pointed out that the
letter was, in fact, officially called a "letter of guidance,"
the minister was unrepentant.
32. It is generally accepted that one of
the jobs of Government is to intervene to correct failures in
the market. It is a bizarre view that Government should not intervene
to ensure the continuing provision of subjects of strategic importance.
The Government's current attitude appears to be that the future
of the nation's economy should be harmed by the foolish cutting
of funding for excellent research and a bizarre tipping of the
balance against science, or else that future prosperity should
be left to the whim of the current cohort of 17-year olds, who
are not choosing to study science in adequate numbers.
33. The mechanisms by which the Government
could intervene could be relatively simple. It could give the
Regional Development Agencies modest funding and specific responsibility
for ensuring that each region maintains a competitive capacity
across a broad range of disciplines. It could give the Research
Councils modest extra funding and specific responsibility for
ensuring that no area of research was completely lost without
a breathing space to assess whether the costs of doing so would
outweigh the financial savings.
34. We hesitate to suggest that HEFCE be
given further authority, since it is at least as much to blame
for the current predicament as any other organisation, but in
fact, it has already been given new responsibilities in the Government's
ten-year framework for science. Sadly, it appears not really to
understand the problem, as it proved when its representative said
in the press that any financial would be only be available to
departments rated 5 or 5* in the last Research Assessment Exercise.
While the overwhelming majority of research departments are underfunded,
it is not the top-rated departments that are currently under greatest
pressure. If strategic support cannot be extended to departments
that are rated as "nationally excellent," it is a nonsense.
1 Daily Telegraph, 7 July 2000. Back
Physics-building a flourishing future, Report of the Inquiry
into Undergraduate Physics, Institute of Physics, 2001. Back
quoted in The Guardian, Education Section, 5 December
Times Higher Education Supplement, 26 November 2004. Back