Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor David Walton, Coventry University

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 departments.

  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 country.

January 2005

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