Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence



  The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is inquiring into actions that will ensure an adequate level of science teaching and research in English universities This inquiry follows several recent high-profile closures of university chemistry, physics, mathematics and engineering departments.

  We would appreciate your briefly expressing opinions through the following questions, which cover several of the key points of the enquiry. All questions refer to science departments in the English university system, but they clearly have implications for universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  1.  How has HEFCE's research funding, based on RAE ratings, affected the financial viability of science departments?

  Very negatively (47%)/negatively (44%)/neutral(7%)/positively(0%)/very positively(0%)

  2.  How desirable is it to increase the concentration of scientific research into a few departments?

  Very desirable(9%)/desirable(9%)/neutral(6%)/undesirable(45%)/very undesirable(39%)

  3.  How desirable are teaching-only science departments?

  Very desirable(0%)/desirable(9%)/neutral(6%)/undesirable(40%)/entirely undesirable(46%)

  4.  How financially viable are teaching-only science departments?

  Completely viable(3%)/viable(9%)/neutral(32%)/non-viable(44%)/utterly non-viable(12%)

  5.  How important is it to maintain a regional capacity in science teaching and research?

  Very important(68%)/important(29%)/neutral(3%)/unimportant(0%)/entirely unimportant(0%)

  6.  Should the Government intervene to ensure continued provision of scientific subjects of strategic national or regional importance?



  "We desperately need trained science teachers in the schools. Government intervention to SUPPORT science may be necessary but it MUST ONLY be carried out in consultation with the universities and MUST take school provision into account".

  "It is entirely wrong to believe that good research can only come from established centres . . . The history of science from Galileo on shows that new ideas and breakthroughs come from those on the edge of convention, not the recognised establishment. Fund diversity, not complacency".

  "Many actions of Government have exactly the opposite effects of the ones intended. The RAE exercise is one. Research results are smeared as thinly as possible to produce repetitive publications in journals which university libraries can no longer afford and which few people, none from industry, will ever read. The primary aim of big laboratories is to strangle infant rivals. Many useful activities which are hard to count are treated as valueless".

  "As the RAE bites, better qualified scientists will drift to higher rated departments, thus removing teaching competence for honours and for instructional masters from hitherto highly competent departments. Non research departments will be unable to recruit lively staff. The sad thing is that the Government . . . have allowed a handful of old universities to return the national situation to that which applied in the old days—good provision for the few. The impact on science teaching nationally will be exceptionally hard".

  "This should not be a consultation of English but of all British Science Faculties . . . Teaching-only should not be considered unless there is a direct arrangement to use them as feeders into high quality, laboratory-based, research-informed Honours courses. All good laboratory science teaching is, in effect, subsidised by research income and so teaching-only science Departments are not only academically undesirable, they have no real chance of being financially viable.

  It is very important to link the number of laboratory-trained science graduates to the numbers of jobs available in each part of the country. That does not necessarily mean that the graduates need to have been taught in that part of the country.

  The Government should intervene in the sense of funding laboratory-based courses at the correct full economic cost. They should NOT even consider telling individual HEIs what they should and should not teach. There should indeed be figures readily available for the numbers of, say, Honours Chemists that the country (the UK) needs on an annual basis".

  "It has been an error in public policy regarding higher education in science to separate teaching from research, particularly as the research funding has been skewed by the RAE rating system . . . The inevitable result is evidenced by recent closures of perfectly sound science departments.

  The choice is either (1) to make teaching-only science departments financially viable by assigning large-scale funding to support them; or (2) to abandon the inequitable research funding system and return to the concept of the `well-found laboratory' that underpinned all university science departments in the past. The first choice will generate an unnecessary and educationally divisive distinction between science degrees from different institutions. The second alternative appears to offer a rational and desirable objective of national science policy in higher education".

  "I am an applied mathematician and that mathematics is one of the most fundamental and at the same time one of the cheapest sciences. British science has been very successful in the past, and cheap at the same time. No country has been more successful or cheaper. In science there is a natural pattern of growth which is not well understood . . . read the history of science".

  "Issues that I think are important . . . notably to do with the labour market for trained scientists in the UK, their career prospects and wage rates . . . wage rates are not great and career prospects are often very uncertain, given which it is far from irrational for young people to turn away from science. The share of industry, especially chemicals, in our economy continues to fall, and you only need to look at the back pages of New Scientist to get an idea of the poor wage rates on offer for really experienced scientists".

  "The separation of teaching and research in a university setting would undoubtedly have a deleterious effect on recruitment of young scientists of the future. Science-only departments or support for only a handful of science departments will undoubtedly lose the exceptionally gifted young scientists who arise. . . in the smaller universities".

  "Professor of Applied Mathematics . . . During the last 60 years the world has been turned upside down by the computer, a mathematical device . . . also by the Internet, depending on cryptography, a branch of mathematics. Much of the progress came from the UK. The Committee should consider how the rigid constraints now fashionable would have operated 60 years ago. Clearly these developments would never have come into being . . ."

  "the best form of teaching, whatever the subject, is carried out and received in an atmosphere of research . . . it is imperative we maintain if the UK is to produce world-class scientists and engineers who can keep UK plc at the forefront internationally. . . ."

  "The Government should take positive steps to stop the current `brain drain' from academic research as well as promoting science and engineering amongst university graduates through the availability of more government/industry sponsored academic post provisions across the universities. Where such or similar schemes already exist, science and engineering should be given a higher priority . . ."

  "Downscaling science at the current rate is strategically dangerous. It is destroying valuable intellectual assets, and indeed a whole `research ecology', that could take a century to re-build. These assets, and this system, are critical to the performance of an innovative, knowledge intensive economy like the UK".

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