Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Paul G Hare, Heriot Watt University

  1.  I am writing in connection with your inquiry, "Strategic science provision in English universities". Although I am an academic in a Scottish University, my views about the subject of your inquiry may still be useful to your Committee. Moreover, it seems to me that much of your inquiry is likely to be of interest and relevance to the Scottish universities, even though our funding arrangements are dealt with by the devolved administration. For despite devolution, we operate in essentially the same competitive environment as the English universities, implying that any significant changes that your Committee recommends regarding the English universities are highly likely to exert a parallel impact in Scotland.

  2.  It is clear that HEFCE's research funding formula based on RAE200l, taken together with the available funds for supporting university research, has resulted in even greater concentration of research funding than universities expected before 2001. I would judge that departments rated at 5, 5* (and more recently, the notional new category, 6*) will be adequately funded to undertake high quality research provided that their student numbers, and hence their HEFCE teaching grant, are sufficient to provide a high level of core funding. My strong impression is that current funding formulas would make it exceedingly hard for a strongly performing research department to manage by specializing (almost) solely in research (incl PhD student supervision).

  3.  Equally, a department without substantial research funding from HEFCE would be severely constrained as to the volume and quality of research that it could support. Hence departments rated at 4 in RAE200l would often, in my judgement, be struggling to finance research at an adequate level unless they benefit from additional support from within their institution, essentially transfers from other departments.

  4.  The likelihood, therefore, must be that high-level scientific research in English universities will become increasingly concentrated as science departments close or restructure, and I would expect this tendency to be reinforced by the outcome of RAE2008. Somewhat similar tendencies will be observed in Scotland, too.

  5.  Your Committee asks whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, from various points of view. My view is that the question should be considered in two parts: (a) Does the expected research concentration result in a greater overall volume and/or higher quality of UK scientific research? (b) How much high-quality scientific research does the UK need?

  6.  On the first question, evidence about the benefits or otherwise of research concentration is not abundant, but I would argue that such concentration is only likely to prove beneficial to the extent that the underlying "research production function"—about which, I must say, we know shockingly little in any depth—is subject to increasing returns to scale. This can be the case in subject areas needing very large pieces of equipment, for instance, though even there one can question whether it is necessary to bring the best researchers together in the same institution, or whether it might suffice to arrange regional co-operative networks enabling researchers from diverse institutions to access the necessary equipment. The other frequently cited source of increasing returns is the externalities arising from researchers working on related topics talking and interacting with each other. In other words, this is a point about "research culture" and about opportunities for colleagues to learn from each other, thereby enhancing the productivity of the whole team. For small groups this is quite a strong argument, though the point can also be addressed through personal networking, and studies of the dynamics and effectiveness of research groups rarely show much improvement once a group gets to about eight people.

  7.  Hence on this part of the question, I would conclude that in certain areas of scientific research involving specialised and expensive equipment needs, or where there are special benefits from large research groups, the concentration going on in UK university science can be defended on aggregate (system-wide) productivity grounds. In many areas of research, however, it seems to me that the case for research concentration is at best not proven and at worst could be positively damaging. Further study would be needed to establish in exactly which areas concentration really was beneficial for the UK.

  8.  The second question in para 5 asked about overall UK needs for high-level scientific research, since I consider it very difficult to take a view about research trends in English universities without standing back and setting that concern in the context of the country's needs. One way of thinking about this would be to investigate the demand for scientific manpower in the UK. This is rather a large task, and not one that I can claim to have undertaken for your Committee. However, it is not hard to find a few pointers to the current state of demand; for brevity, I merely list a few points:

    —  A quick look at New Scientist and other relevant publications shows that many scientific jobs, even for experienced post-docs, offer rather low wages and/or fairly short-term contracts;

    —  In many areas of science, there are few UK citizens undertaking PhDs, raising questions about recruitment to the next generation of academic posts in our universities;

    —  Your Committee will be aware that in academia itself, salaries at all levels have fallen far behind other comparable professions in the last 23 decades. I know this both from my own personal experience and by observing my own university's recruitment problems. We can usually find people to fill posts, but sometimes we have little choice but to accept people who are less well qualified than we would like. Increasingly, we fail to get good UK applicants and have to employ people from overseas; such people are ofien very good, of course, but they are unlikely to offer the same institutional commitment that we might expect from our own citizens;

    —  The share of industry within the UK economy, and within that the share of highly scientific branches such as chemicals, has been falling both in GDP terms, and even more so in employment terms. This trend is familiar to most young people, making it rather understandable that increasing numbers of them elect to pursue higher education in disciplines outside the traditional core sciences. One may find this trend in some ways regrettable (and I do personally), but I would doubt whether it is a matter over which government intervention can exert great influence.

  9.  These points, taken together, suggest that the effective demand for scientific manpower in the UK is relatively weak and is likely to remain so. This is despite years of government propaganda about the so called "knowledge economy", whatever that is supposed to mean. I conclude that the UK probably does not need as many good scientists as we are currently training, and that if provision was significantly curtailed, we might well create a happier situation—within a decade or two—in which scientists could expect to enjoy relatively higher incomes than they can now, would enjoy greater public respect and admiration, and would contribute more to the economy than they do now.

  10.  The latter point arises from the "selection effect" that would start to operate quite rapidly once a general perception of improving conditions for scientists took hold of the popular imagination. For then ambitious young people would indeed start to see their futures in terms of scientific careers, and the best people would increasingly be drawn into such a direction. That would surely be a welcome contrast to the present situation in which many universities actually offer lower entry standards to incoming science students in order to fill their allotted places than they do, say, to management students. Such policies are driven by the current "rules of the game", but they are surely not the way to build and maintain a high-level, internationally competitive science establishment.

  11.  I hope the above points make my general views on the subject of your inquiry sufficiently clear without my needing to repeat conclusions. I only wish to refer to one further point, about the question whether the Government should intervene to ensure provision in subjects of "strategic national or regional importance". The short answer, I believe, is normally "no", essentially because I consider Government to be far less well informed than universities to judge what academic programmes an individual university, or universities in a given region, can or cannot afford to maintain. In addition, it is not clear to me that the Government is particularly competent to judge what disciplines are or are not of strategic importance. Any attempt to make such judgements is likely to suffer the same fate as old-fashioned and long discredited manpower planning.

  12.  While I do not believe the Government should intervene directly, in the manner of central planning, there could be little objection to a bit of targeted, competitively allocated funding. Universities these days increasingly respond to incentives, and targeted programmes inviting bids from institutions can be an effective way of eliciting high quality responses. In my own area, transition economies, this approach worked pretty well during the 1990s, both at UK level (via the ESRC) and at EU level (via elements within the PHARE and TACIS programmes). In a particular area of science, for instance, HEFCE, OST or the relevant Research Councils could invite bids for 5-10 year programmes involving a mix of advanced teaching and research to stimulate new developments (eg network algorithms applied to telecommunications; nanotechnology applied to medicine; mathematical theories of coding, etc).

  Finally, let me provide some personal information about myself I am Professor of Economics and Director of Research in the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt University, and have taught and researched in Scottish universities since 1972. The above comments are entirely my personal views and should not be considered as representing an official view of my institution. If anything that I have said is unclear or insufficient for your purposes, I would be happy to provide additional comments to the Committee at any time.

January 2005

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