Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Grierson, University of Nottingham

    —  The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments;

  The step changes in funding that occur between grades has had a significant impact for those units that did not achieve the highest ratings. We have been particularly concerned that, in the last exercise, the assessment was uneven across different areas of science and engineering. In particular, we consider that the RAE ratings had a damaging effect on key medical areas which are disproportionate to the judgements that were being made about research quality in these areas. There has also been a distorting and harmful effect, especially on areas of research that are applied, interdisciplinary, innovative, or specialised. RAE has driven some Departments towards pure, single-subject, orthodox, mainstream research, to the detriment of other exciting and useful possibilities.

    —  The desirability of increasing the concentration of research in a small number of university departments, and the consequences of such a trend;

  This is a complex issue since greater concentration in fewer departments may in the longer term risk reducing the national science and innovation capacity even though critical mass is often necessary for the UK to have research groups which can sustain world-class competitiveness in an area. It would be valuable for some high-tech disciplines with costly physical resources, but could be a damaging and arbitrary constraint on other subjects which could prevent the strongest seeds from sprouting where they fall. It is vital that concentration is targeted at those universities and departments that can demonstrate enterprise and imagination in developing new research, encourage interdisciplinary working, and are innovative in dissemination, technology transfer and exploiting the outcomes of research. Further concentration in universities or departments that do not have the culture and capacity to innovate, however good the current quality of their research, may be counterproductive.

    —  The implications for university science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula;

  Any changes which reduce the weightings given to science subjects will have a detrimental effect on these areas. Given that university budgetary models usually reflect the national funding model, it will reduce income levels available for that subject. This means not only less for teaching but also puts pressure on recruitment and promotion budgets leading to a spiral of decline in demand for the subjects. This can be very costly to address at a later stage through special incentives and other schemes, to say nothing of the cost of lost opportunities.

    —  The optimal balance between teaching and research provision in universities, giving particular consideration to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science departments;

  In our view only research active units can credibly reach world class levels of knowledge dissemination. Units will not be recognised for teaching alone at this level. Furthermore, there are synergies between teaching and research when an optimal balance is achieved. Therefore, we believe that teaching-only science departments are not desirable without compromising on quality and if they emerge, should be related to specific roles. Removing research capacity from departments by shutting off funding may mean fewer possibilities for those departments to compete globally.

    —  The importance of maintaining a regional capacity in university science teaching and research;

  We believe that it is important to maintain a regional capacity in university science teaching and research providing that this capacity exceeds a quality threshold. In some areas, specific investment may be required to ensure this happens. The RDAs should be encouraged further to work closely with universities to ensure that this capacity is developed. We see the development of a new vet school at the University as precisely the kind of initiative where a partnership approach can deliver high quality research and teaching capacity. However, we can see no benefit in maintaining sub-standard capacity.

    —  The extent to which the Government should intervene to ensure continuing provision of subjects of strategic national or regional importance; and the mechanisms it should use for this purpose.

  If the market alone dictates how HE is configured, less popular subjects will continue to be at risk (as evidenced by recent closure decisions). Measures to invest in less popular departments, while challenging them to be innovative and imaginative, working with industry and RDA partners, in addressing their lack of popularity, must be considered if the UK is to retain a broad-based science portfolio. In particular, it is vital to support the more fundamental science and engineering disciplines which are essential to tackle the major research challenges of the 21st Century. Mechanisms should range from stimulating staff and student demand through incentives such as "golden hellos" and special allowances to major schemes such as the EPSRC's Science and Innovation Awards which encourage a partnership approach to address the issues in a coordinated and holistic way. The importance of the national profile of science and engineering in public, political, and educational life of the nation should be enhanced and the reward system improved in order for these areas to continue to attract young people. If teaching provision in schools is inadequate and/or uninspired, there is little prospect of achieving this.

January 2005

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