Memorandum from the Society for Applied
The Society for Applied Microbiology is the
UK's oldest microbiological society with members in over 73 countries.
The society is the voice of applied microbiology in the UK and
we are always exploring ways to promote the interests of our members
and science. For example, the society was recently selected to
handle communications for the EU Network of Excellence called
"Med-Vet-Net". This is a network of 16 Institutes in
10 European countries investigating diseases transmitted by animals;
these diseases as well as causing considerable suffering and misery
are responsible for 14 million deaths worldwide and costs the
EU well in excess of
Applied microbiologists play a key role in public
health, environmental protection and remediation, as well as in
industries such as food, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. Applied
microbiology is a key skill required in human and animal medicine,
for example in combating diseases whether emerging (SARS or avian
flu) or classical (foot and mouth) and now, regrettably, defence
The Society welcomes this opportunity to present
evidence to the Committee and to share its concerns about the
future direction of teaching and research in our universities.
The responses to the Committee's questions are:
1. The impact of HEFCE's research funding
formulae, as applied to RAE ratings, on the financial viability
of university science departments;
There has been a marked decrease in both the
number of microbiology departments and graduates with specific
microbiology degrees over the last decade.
There are sound economic arguments for the formation
of large departments by merger and rationalisation and for concentrating
resources on the less expensive subjects. However, there is a
serious risk that with significant funding only allocated to the
highest rated research units that other units, many with a considerable
quantity of good science which is of strategic importance to the
future of the UK, miss out.
Universities have to pursue strategies to maintain
their financial viability. Applied microbiology is an expensive
subject because of the laboratories, technicians, materials and
equipment required, and often jointly used, for teaching as well
as research. The cost of maintaining this very specialised equipment
is also significant. Our fear is that the trend to concentrate
funding into a limited number of units will continue and the teaching
of, and research in, applied microbiology will suffer.
2. The desirability of increasing the concentration
of research in a small number of university departments, and the
consequences of such a trend;
The formation of large departments can result
in an increase and rationalisation of teaching and research. There
is, however, a concern that if the number of university departments
carrying out research becomes too small, much good quality science
will be lost and new ideas will not emerge from the UK.
The appropriate number of university departments
in a particular subject is a difficult balance to strike. We believe
that this balance should not be left solely to market forces as
teaching/research in certain subjects is of strategic importance
to the country. We believe that applied microbiology should be
considered a strategic subject.
3. The implications for university science
teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects
in the teaching funding formula;
The most serious implication is that it will
continue to be extremely difficult to adequately teach science
subjects, such as applied microbiology. Applied microbiology has
a high, and therefore, expensive practical element. Unless this
need can be financed students will leave English Universities
less well equipped for their careers.
4. The optimal balance between teaching and
research provision in universities, giving particular consideration
to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science
Overall there has to be balance between the
two elements, though this balance will vary between Universities.
However, teaching-only departments are of questionable viability
in science since there will be a shortage of funds for practical
provision. Practical teaching is a key component of courses in
subjects such as applied microbiology!
Public health, medicine and many industrial
sectors such as food, pharmaceuticals, water and environmental
remediation are of crucial importance to the future of the UK.
These sectors require knowledgeable, enthusiastic and skilled
applied microbiology graduates who have practical skills, insight
and experience. We believe that to satisfy this demand the best
teaching includes a component of "research-led teaching".
Enthusiasm for, and experience of, research by staff is transmitted
to undergraduate students and produces the high quality graduates
required by employers. We have many examples to support this argument.
5. The importance of maintaining a regional
capacity in university science teaching and research;
This is important as it is more costly than
ever for students to study away from home. This could mean that
students will study whatever subject they can at an institution
close to home rather than a subject which is of strategic importance
to the UK.
Government policy is to encourage the development
of SMEs and the existing science based industries. Industry and
SMEs often benefit from a local research institution to provide
them with the help, knowledge and advice they need. That university
will benefit, as will the local community and the country, from
6. The extent to which the Government should
intervene to ensure continuing provision of subjects of national
or regional importance; and the mechanisms it should use for this
The Society for Applied Microbiology believes
that a policy based on a blend of market-led forces coupled with
a strategy to protect and encourage subjects which are of strategic
importance for the UK has to be developed.
This policy needs to identify the strategic
science subjects and accept that they are often more expensive
to teach but that the result will be quality graduates and a healthy
research and industrial base. The policy also needs to recognise
that the strategic science subjects, such as chemistry, physics,
applied microbiology and biochemistry are essential for the teaching
of other disciplines, such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and
The Government finally needs a rigorous investigation
of the complicated reasons for the decline in the number of school
and undergraduate students wishing to study these sciences.
26 January 2005