Memorandum from Professor David Walton,
Point 1: The Impact of HEFCE's research funding
formula, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on
the financial viability of university science departments.
This is having a very damaging effect. My understanding
(admittedly at second-hand) of the situation at Exeter is that
the Chemistry course achieved its target undergraduate student
numbers but it is intended to close the Department because there
is insufficient funding via RAE to support the infrastructure.
If nothing else this must show a mismatch between target quota
numbers, the amount of funding awarded to the university per student
for this subject and the costs of maintaining the infrastructure.
There is also an issue about strategic reallocation
of funding obtained through the RAE.
In my own situation we are a "new"
university, but have an ongoing research effort that has led to
a decent number of deliverables: we have only nine chemistry staff
(out of 667 teaching staff who could choose to undertake research),
and since the last RAE alone we have produced 75 published papers
out of 336 total in all MIMAS databases from our entire university,
have contributed to 13 new books, are involved with almost half
of all university-held patents, and have supervised 34 completed
higher degree (Masters/Doctoral) studentships out of 231 from
the whole university. Currently we have 31 ongoing higher degree
studentships. We also have acceptable external esteem indicators
(President of International Society, Chairman of European COST
Action, membership of professional committees etc). These efforts
have brought Professorships to three of our staff (but with increased
financial demands on our cost centre), and we contributed greatly
to the award of RAE grade 4 in Unit of Assessment 32 Materials
(up from 3A), which was the joint highest grade at our university.
This ought to be cause for celebration. Instead we are anticipating
job losses (having been warned verbally that these are in the
pipeline) because `chemistry is too expensive'. Despite grade
4 achievements the overall RAE income to our university was less
than was expected and as a result of this has had to be used strategically
across the university. From my personal situation the HEFCE research
funding formula has been nothing short of disastrous.
Point 2: The desirability of increasing the
concentration of research in a small number of university departments,
and the consequences of such a trend
The smaller the number of research units, the
less chance of making sufficient discoveries. However high the
calibre of the few remaining research units, the country will
suffer a demonstrable loss of capability. This is because an important
part of research is not just the successes, which are what are
published and attract attention, but also the failures, which
are not published but which guide the next effort in the field.
Often partial successes, such as are obtained at a moderate research
centre, when published can guide workers at a top-class unit.
For example, an organic chemist pursuing studies into a small
aspect of synthesis makes a new compound for no other reason than
it is in a series in which he or she is interested. This is then
published and comes to the attention of a researcher interested
in leading-edge research into biological membranes and consequences
for disease conditions. This researcher realises that the new
compound could be used as a mimic in part of the process and so,
using the published synthetic procedure, which may not be obvious,
is able to make and study the new compound. If the first researcher
at the smaller establishment had not been there, then the leading-edge
researcher would have had to think of the novel compound and also
come up with a synthetic route to it. In my experience, however
high-calibre a researcher may be, they cannot think of everything,
and in any case the project at the high-calibre unit would now
require a double-level of justification of resources, firstly
to attempt to make the new compound (which it may not be possible
to make, remember the first worker had to prove it could be done),
and then to use it. This may be sufficient administrative hindrance
for the work never to be performed.
In addition high-flying research can be quite
strongly focussed, while smaller research groups are able to interlink
with each other and develop a broad range of expertise to act
as an underpinning resource for developing technologies in the
country. This can be most useful for small companies (SMEs), and
an example at Coventry is the Sonochemistry (ultrasound) Centre,
run by colleagues, and its spread of activities.
My experience of "clustering" research
at a limited number of units was when British Gas (with whom I
collaborated) closed their London Research, Watson House Research
and Solihull Research Centres and replaced them with a (now itself
closed) single new research unit at Loughborough. The scope of
new science and potentially commercially-useful discoveries became
quite limited. I do not think that as a country we should restrict
the opportunities for discovery (by all means enhance high-calibre
units), but if the referees of papers, and the awarding bodies
for individual grants (eg EPSRC) think that a particular piece
of work at a smaller unit is meritsome then sufficient infrastructure
should be provided to support it. It is recognised to be almost
impossible to predict what will be a crucial discovery in research,
and no-one involved in the early development of lasers would have
predicted that one would be part of a storage device in the computer
that I am using, or even that a computer of this power and speed
would be sitting on the table in my back room at home. Major research
discoveries are predicated upon a host of minor ones.
Point 3: The implications for University Science
teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects
in the teaching funding formula.
At a recent European COST meeting in Brussels
I was interested to hear from an Israeli scientist that the relative
weightings in his country are that a university receives for a
chemistry undergraduate student four times as much as for a history
student. I believe here the ratio is only 1.7 times. Science subjects
require laboratories, technicians and infrastructure support,
but the trained personnel who come out from these courses are
able to bring funding back into the country that has trained them.
This is not true of all subjects, and there have been several
recent surveys to try to establish the "value-added"
of training in chemistry compared to other subjects. I assume
the Committee will be made aware of these by Professional Bodies
(for example I believe the Royal Society of Chemistry has data
from a survey in Germany that confirms the clear value to the
country's Gross National Product of Chemistry training). If the
country of Britain is concerned about the cost of training its
citizens in strategic subjects then it should consider ways of
extending the training to include commercial skills so as to maximise
financial return to the country of producing these trained personnel.
This must be a better strategy than cutting back on training so
that one day we may have to rely on importing suitably skilled
personnel from outside our country.
It is hard to find out "value-added"
data from my own Alumni Office, especially since the value to
the country some 5 or 10 years after finishing a BSc is a truer
indicator of the worth of the education provided than simple "first
destination" data. The ex-student need not still be working
in the field of science to be a net earner for the country, and
so represent a good "value-added" return on the costs
of education. Universities represent only the final stage in the
complete education of a person.
As well as the balance between teaching and
research there is also an issue about the balance regarding central
infrastructure and administration costs. I am not clear how these
are factored into calculations about the weightings for subjects,
and how they vary for different institutions.
Point 4: The optimal balance between teaching
and research provision in universities, giving particular consideration
to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science
The problem here is that a proper undergraduate
training in say chemistry involves the teaching of a modicum of
research skills. This benefits the student in whatever walk of
life they may end up in, even if it is not in chemistry. The idea
is to give training in how to approach a problem, devise a means
to attempt it, and assess the value of data obtained. At my Institution
this involves a final-year project, and to give specific examples
I have three of these this year.
One concerns the surface properties of silicon,
measured by a wetting measurement technique derived from a collaboration
with a university in Poland. Our aim was to check silicon (actually
the outside layer is an oxide) as a control, before moving on
to more complicated materials such as intrinsically-conducting
polymers (we have a research proposal for an extensive higher-degree
study on these materials lodged with the EPSRC and would like
to give some preliminary data to assist the assessors of the proposal).
The student is a French National on a final-year exchange from
France. The results from silicon alone are so interesting that
these will be sufficient for the project report. Some measurements
are performed in the laboratory of a small spin-off company set
up by an ex-colleague who was obliged to leave during a reprofiling
exercise here two years ago.
The second concerns the possible effects of
magnetic fields upon electro-organic reaction mechanisms. This
is an old chestnut in electrochemistry. Magnetism certainly affects
the corrosion of iron, which is a magnetic material in its own
right, but the possible influence of magnetic fields upon transient
intermediates in complex organic reaction mechanisms has long
been a matter for debate. We have a collaboration with the University
of Birmingham to use new magnetic materials that may give sufficient
field strength to see an effect. The reaction system we have chosen
is one that we are familiar with from our studies within the European
COST Action, and we know that the balance of products can be switched
by alteration of electrolysis parameters such as by using sound
waves. Here we are now investigating the effects of magnetic fields.
The third concerns the use of sound waves to
examine an unusual electrochemical reaction in which oxygen inserts
unexpectedly into bonds in a carbon-compound. This is a collaboration
with Kyushu University in Japan. The results may explain some
of the surface effects seen by other workers in carbon nanotubes
and similar new materials.
The students have only a few short weeks to
study these projects, and as undergraduates unused to problem-solving
at research level they do not make great discoveries, nonetheless
these contribute to the minor steps forward that underpin major
ones and we may have results suitable for publication in the refereed
scientific literature from any of these projects. In a recent
student project we made a novel compound that was taken to Oxford
for further study, and the consequent results jointly published
in a high impact-factor journal.
The point is that the projects use research-grade
apparatus that is already in the laboratory for research usage,
and importantly the undergraduates have practical assistance from
postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers who are there to help
precisely because of their presence to undertake research. In
a "teaching university" (and I am not sure how this
type of institution would work) there presumably will not be dedicated
research-grade equipment, and such project students as there are
must try to fit in on equipment routinely used by groups of students
in practical classes. If there were equipment dedicated to undergraduate
projects it would sit unused for periods of time, since the project
component cannot be a major and continuous part of an undergraduate
course. This is a less-effective use of laboratory resources than
the current system where overall usage of research equipment is
maximised by undergraduate projects.
Point 5: The importance of maintaining a regional
capacity in university science teaching and research.
To the best of my knowledge my institution is
one of only two of its kind (ex-polytechnics) in the whole Midlands
of England that delivers a traditional chemistry degree, and we
understand we will soon be reprofiled again to offer only a forensic
chemistry degree. In the case of Exeter there is now no traditional
chemistry offered in most of Devon and Cornwall. If the Government
is serious about extending university education to 50% of the
eligible population, and "widening access" to those
who for whatever reason may not be able to undertake a chemistry
degree at a Russell Group University then the current situation
does not make sense. At Coventry we tend to take students who
do not have a traditional background, and a consequence of this
is that we have a higher failure rate early in the course. We
do not view this as a waste, because we do not expect everyone
who thinks first in life that they want to be chemists should
be forced to have a chemistry training if they are not suited
to it. If instead the students who leave us early go on to find
other useful careers in life then we have given them valuable
self-knowledge. This must overall be to the benefit of the country,
but failure rates are held as negative factors against us. On
the other hand our students who get good honours degrees go on
to get higher degrees at many other universities, such as Warwick,
Leicester, London, Southampton, and Oxford. A student who earlier
obtained an Upper Second Class Honours BSc degree from us has
just obtained a DPhil from Oxford and been put forward for a prestigious
Royal Society Fellowship. We often have students who have personal
and social reasons that distinguish them from "typical"
school-leavers and we believe we give them as good a training
in the subject as they could receive anywhere.
In respect of variants of the subject, I recently
asked chemists from fourteen countries at a European meeting if
the word "forensic" meant anything to them. To my surprise
none of the attendees (once I had explained the word to non-english
speakers) thought that forensic chemistry was an important subject
in their country, and they were surprised to hear that many British
universities were changing from traditional chemistry to forensic
chemistry and other variants of the subject. This is an increasing
trend that the Committee must address, in which British higher
educational establishments are driven by what they think young
people think they want to do. This may not be the best for the
country, and other countries do not allow this to happen. Young
people are by definition less experienced in life and the country
supports their education so that when they are older there will
be a mix of skills that is best for society. This may not be apparent
to students at the age they leave secondary school and it is necessary
to give guidance. By all means offer forensic chemistry as a branch
of the subject that exploits existing equipment, laboratories,
technicians and infrastructure, but as a subject it is more restrictive
than chemistry, and to be taught properly requires additional
expertise that is not normally available within a chemistry department.
I am personally happy with the analytical chemistry component
of forensic chemistry, which I am able to teach, but overall forensic
chemistry is a relatively new subject and it is not clear how
much the training of increasing numbers in this subject will benefit
the country. It would make more sense to run forensic chemistry
in parallel with the parent subject, not instead of it, until
the benefits are clearer. This is not what is happening, and on
top of this the regional mix of whatever variant of chemistry
is being taught is such that students from certain backgrounds
who may not be able to move just anywhere to learn are no longer
able to study the subject at all.
Point 6: The extent to which government should
intervene to ensure continuing provision of subjects of strategic
national or regional importance, and the mechanisms it should
use for this purpose.
This is an interesting point since virtually
all higher education funding in this country originates from the
government in any case. I recently attended a lecture by the Vice-Chancellor
of another university who made the point that "since HEFCE
controls the quotas of students per subject, and controls the
amount of funding per student per subject, then the only sanction
open to a Vice-Chancellor is to alter the mix of courses on offer"
(which in the current climate amounts to closing courses down).
The problem seems that Vice-Chancellors have necessarily a limited
view of the overall picture (ie they are charged with the financial
probity of their institution and not with any wider issues, such
as the good of the country as a whole). It is therefore essential
that government intervenes to direct the use of resources. It
is surprising that a country of 60 million inhabitants could end
up with only 20 (if that becomes the number) of good academic
research units in one of the key natural sciences, and that we
cannot support the teaching of some 3,000 new students in chemistry
per year, yet this appears to be the case. At my university the
lecture rooms are not in ideal condition, and these are not just
used for chemistry classes. If chemistry is suffering because
of poor student numbers, what subjects are doing well and having
resources put into them? It is not obvious to me which subjects
are, and as I travel around other universities I do not see signs
of conspicuous expenditure on teaching resources elsewhere. If
it is true that higher education is being effectively funded then
why is not the sharp end (ie teaching resources) showing this?
Where is the funding going, and is it really there? I cannot say.
How this is rectified is a matter for the Committee
to address. One possibility is that an independent panel be set
up to adjudicate on course closures and other changes in educational
provision. A Vice-Chancellor planning to close courses would need
to lay the reasons before this panel. If nothing else this would
help to clarify matters for those involved. The panel should also
obtain proper "added-value" data from alumni. It is
important to obtain accurate figures on which to base decisions.
At my institution we are not convinced that the true costs of
our chemistry course have been taken into account. There are local
issues to debate, including the setting up last year of a centralised
undergraduate admissions office, with teething troubles that particularly
affected chemistry recruitment. Chemistry staff also bring in
research money and were key players in the RAE grade 4 for Materials.
We are not sure how the "chemistry is too expensive"
view is justified when the whole spread of chemistry activities
is considered. The contribution of our chemists to university
patents and "third strand" activities is notable and
generally chemists are productive in this regard everywhere. No
doubt there are other potentially extenuating issues for courses
at other institutions.
In any case an independent panel would be able
to take a national strategic view. At present it seems to us that
Vice-Chancellors are being almost panicked into decisions based
on short-term financial considerations, and are not required to
consider the longer-term national benefit. This situation ought
to be redressed before long-term damage is caused, unless of course
the restriction of science provision is actually a national aim.
I have had several industrial jobs in my career,
so have experience of both commercial and academic establishments,
and cannot say that I have found universities to be places of
conspicuous over-expenditure in regard to teaching provision.
Given the number of course closures proposed, in the range of
subjects at such a spread of institutions, especially offset against
a supposed wider access to higher education of students in greater
numbers, then the likely explanation is that the funding model
is erroneous. I hope the Committee will consider this possibility.
I have produced this document at short notice
and in great haste. I am happy to provide further detail if desired.
I am very concerned about the future of science education in this