Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Society for Applied Microbiology

  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

6 billion/yr.

  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 against bioterrorism.

  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 departments;

  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 this partnership.

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 purpose.

  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 veterinary degrees.

  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

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