Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Senior Scientists and Research and Development Managers representing several UK Pharmaceutical Companies

  The authors of this document have a broad experience of the interface between academia and the UK Pharmaceutical industry. In our opinion the rapidly diminishing provision of chemistry as a subject in many universities will severely compromise the development of the UK pharmaceutical and biotech industries. The key issues that Government must address quickly are:

    —  As a matter of urgency universities must be provided with the full per-capita cost of undergraduate chemistry teaching, without the necessity to subsidise teaching from research income.

    —  There must be a Government backed national strategy for the provision of chemistry teaching in England, which will ensure that provision meets the needs of industry and also regional demands.

    —  Any further rationalisation of those departments that teach chemistry must be carried out within a well-considered national strategy for the provision of graduate chemists.

  The Committee has invited evidence to be given on the following points:

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

  There is no other country where, only by achieving the highest standard in research, can a university afford to provide undergraduate training. In the US for example, universities derive enough income from teaching to fund undergraduate activities and as well as this, even in the smallest departments, academics can normally pursue some independent research activities. Many of the smaller colleges are renowned for producing high quality graduates who often transfer to major research departments (eg Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, MIT etc.) to pursue doctorate-level work. In the UK, as well, there has traditionally been a symbiotic relationship between the smaller departments, who have provided well-trained, well-motivated graduates who have stepped-up to have successful research careers at larger departments. It is well known that leading research departments such as, IC, Cambridge and Oxford have relied heavily on a graduate intake from smaller departments.

  It should also be recognised that the majority of science graduates leave university at graduate level and the majority of jobs for scientists (including teaching) are also at this level. It follows that provision of very well-trained science graduates is a vital activity, which must not simply be a by-product from the major research schools.

  The research funding formula was intended to direct research funding towards those departments that are the leaders in research. However, the under-funding of science teaching has meant that only those departments that have very high research funding can afford to teach undergraduates. This is clearly illustrated by the example of Chemistry at Exeter, which had nearly 100 undergraduates in each year with high A-level scores, and was a very good (RAE 4) research department, but could not run chemistry without losing money.

  Many of the highly rated research departments (eg Cambridge, Bristol, Durham) take high numbers of undergraduates, but do not produce a high proportion of graduates that become practicing scientists. Many of the smaller research departments, including some of those that have closed (eg Salford) had a reputation for producing graduates that were attractive both to industry and to the bigger research departments, as PhD students. The supply of these research-oriented graduates is diminishing with the uncoordinated closure of Chemistry Departments. This has severe consequences for both industry and the major research universities. Major pharmaceutical companies are now collecting data to predict the impact on the industry.

  There needs to be adequate funding for universities that provide high quality teaching for group sizes of 50-100 students/yr, but research output at <5/5*.

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

  In many fields of scientific research that are of current importance, the highest level of equipment and infrastructure is required in order to compete at the highest level—this is very expensive. It is important that UK academics are able to compete at the highest level, and concentration of key, large items of equipment must take place for economic and critical mass reasons. However, this DOES NOT imply that other research centres are unnecessary—a wide diversity of research active universities is essential for the academic health of the nation. The research activities of many young academics has been nurtured in small departments, where they have had the opportunity to grow as scientists. Many internationally renowned scientists at the leading universities started their careers in this way. Indeed, the diversity and independence academic institutions has stimulated competition between research groups and been a catalyst for new ideas and innovations. A parallel has also been seen in the start-up of research-based companies, in areas such as biotechnology.

  It would not be possible or reasonable to provide all chemistry departments with the highest level research facilities. However, any rationalisation of research provision needs to be better managed and co-ordinated within England. We must not allow the closure of departments ONLY on the grounds that they cannot achieve the highest standard in terms of research. In many universities committed academics have made significant research contributions without having the most expensive top-level instrumentation. As well as the finite impact of such research, it also stimulates advanced undergraduate programmes, providing students with first-hand research experience. Such experience is a necessary requirement of training at MChem level, which has become the standard recruitment level for graduate research jobs. In assessing the research productivity (volume) of a department, account should be taken of the other demands on staff, particularly departments with low staff numbers, where teaching loads are high.

   For the reasons above, we need a funding system that allows the maintenance of good teaching departments throughout the country, not all of which should be expected to engage in research at the highest level.

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

  For undergraduate chemistry teaching, the single most important problem is that the funding weighting given to the subject is totally inadequate and in no way reflects the cost of providing good education and training in the subject and complying with modern standards of safety.

  It is now relatively more expensive to teach science subjects in university than it was in the past. Nearly all Chemistry Departments conduct undergraduate teaching at a loss, and back-fund the shortfall through research funding. In chemistry, more stringent requirements for chemical handling, exposure and disposal have been particularly significant. New chemical handling requirements have also meant that the standard of many university teaching laboratories is totally inadequate. The expense of refurbishment of labs is considerable.

  A significant and immediate increase in the per-capita funding of chemistry undergraduates is required to avoid the risk of severe curtailment of chemistry provision in the UK!

  Recently HEFCE were asked to address this issue, but failed to restructure undergraduate funding in a way that would have given sufficient funding to cover the cost of teaching laboratory-based subjects. It has been agreed that chemistry is under-funded and that HEFCE should move to "real-cost" funding. However, during a 4 year review period, the situation is set to remain as it is now until 2008. This could be too late for a significant number of good chemistry departments, that may be faced with the same fate as Exeter, Kings, Swansea, QMC, Salford.

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

  A mixture of Research led departments, Research/Teaching and some Teaching only departments is required, with departments being able to gain credibility and financial security from high quality teaching as well as from research. We certainly need a small number of top world-class Research led departments, but these need to be backed by a larger number of well-resourced Research/Teaching departments. The balance of teaching and research for any department could depend on many factors, with the value of each activity being regarded equally. A few departments might choose to be Teaching only, as were many former technical colleges and polytechnics. Departments of this type would mainly teach at Foundation or BSc level and ideally would have close links to research active departments and/or to local industries, who are often key recipients of their graduates. The important drivers are that the quality of the teaching is high and the content of science courses is not diluted or compromised, and that the UK continues to be a leader in chemical/medicinal/scientific research. We cannot have word-leading research and at the same time neglect the importance of undergraduate teaching.

  Departments that can attract a significant number of students, produce high quality science graduates that are well regarded by employers and by research universities, should be financially viable on income from teaching. However, some universities now run "diluted' science courses, which are cheaper to teach and sound more appealing than "straight' chemistry to the uninformed sixth form student (and to many of their teachers). However, such courses (despite their branding), do not provide graduates with the skills or depth of understanding that employers demand—it is these courses that should be targeted for consolidation, because they mislead students about their vocational value, but the present funding policy encourages universities to develop such courses, even after chemistry departments have been closed.

  Smaller departments that provide good teaching as well as doing some research and/or provide support for industry should be encouraged and should be judged on the overall value of their provision, not just on research and in particular not just on the level of research income. Such departments do provide a valuable stepping-stone for talented researchers who later move to be successful 5/5* departments. Chemistry departments such as Bath, Exeter, Salford, have typically provided this function. Sadly, of these departments, only Bath still survives.

  It is somewhat ironic that many of our current leading chemists in industry and academia came from poorer backgrounds and started university with modest A-levels, but found genuine opportunities through the high quality teaching and encouragement that was once provided by many English chemistry departments, that no longer exist, or may not exist for much longer.

  Sadly, at a time when much is made of widening participation and improving access, it is those universities that provided genuine opportunities for students from less privileged backgrounds, who were less well prepared for university, that are losing their chemistry departments. If this continues chemistry degree courses will only be accessible to the students with the highest A-level scores and will only be taught at a small number of "elite' universities. Chemistry will be inaccessible to students that have not fully developed their academic skills at age 18. As a consequence there will also be inadequate provision of chemists that are appropriately educated for the wide range of technical and research jobs that the economy demands.

  Recognising teaching excellence as a key output of universities alongside research, may be profitable over the short term. The majority of academics compete for research funding a priori, as this is their core purpose. Teaching excellence is perceived as secondary to research success. By providing recognition of teaching excellence (and a career structure in line with this), academics would chose to become research leaders or teaching leaders, and help to meet the primary drivers above.

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

  Students increasingly attend universities in their own region and, if we are not to deny them the opportunity to study chemistry (as well as other science and engineering subjects), there must be provision for sciences throughout the country. Departments that concentrate on teaching could play a big part in encouraging young people into science. If there is not local provision they will study other subjects that are less beneficial to the economy. So it is an imperative that regional capacity in science teaching exists in the UK. Because of the insular nature of universities, we have often lost more than one institution in the same region, because neither was considered viable in its own right, by its governing body. This was the case in London when QMC and Kings closed chemistry departments in close succession. Surely, in that case, there was an opportunity for local rationalisation, instead of losing both institutes. There are now other regions of England where there is a clear risk of losing two or more chemistry departments, because VCs may make independent decisions on the their viability. A policy is required, driven by the Government and HEFCE that will lead to co-operation between universities to ensure the regional demand for chemistry provision is met. In the Manchester area, at least 15 years before the merger of Manchester University and UMIST academics at Manchester UMIST and Salford recognised the local supply and demand issues and were calling for a merged Greater Manchester Chemistry Institute. However, the management of the three universities opposed this. In the intervening years: chemistry at Salford closed; a significant number of leading researchers reluctantly left each of the universities for better prospects elsewhere; and a lot of money was wasted refurbishing laboratories at UMIST; before Manchester and UMIST ultimately merged. Finally, with a lot of investment, there is the prospect of one leading university in the region, but it is difficult to bring back staff of the same calibre as those that have left individual departments over the years. Also, the provision of high quality chemistry education for those without the highest A-level grades has been lost. There has to be a better way to ensure appropriate provision in each region, but individual VCs will not act in the interest of their region, they will only take measures that have a positive short-term impact on their balance sheets.

  The issue of access is an important one for science degrees. Science has traditionally provided a route whereby people from less well-off backgrounds find success. In the past, many students obtained science degrees (and HND/HNC) by studying (often part-time), at FE colleges and polytechnics. These institutions used to offer rigorous chemistry courses, which were ratified by RSC (eg GRSC) or CNAA. The provision of such courses at local colleges has essentially disappeared and universities are the only institutions that can take their place, but at present there are relatively few courses that satisfy this void.

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.

  Government is the major funder of universities and therefore on behalf of the tax-payer is a major "customer". Industry is another important "customer" of the university system and the Government, as the sponsor of the universities must make sure they deliver the type of students required by industry. Government should exercise its influence as a customer and sponsor in directing which products the nation needs to produce through the university system.

  VCs now run universities to meet arbitrary financial targets, rather than the needs of employers and students in the region. We would prefer Government to take direct action in order to ensure that there is adequate provision of capable graduates in key subject areas like chemistry. Government are clearly uncomfortable about taking away autonomy from universities. However, there seem to be certain obvious ways for government to encourage VCs to continue to run science courses: firstly to make it financially viable for them to do so by improving the weighting of science subjects; and secondly to have Chemistry, Physics, Maths departments as defining points for what constitutes a "top-rated" university. They could also provide regional incentives and objectives for Universities in certain parts of the country to provide science provision. If universities, (unlike Exeter which demonstrated 115 good chemistry applicants in 2004), are not meeting regional demands, then they could face penalties. The question must be asked, why have a university in a position of regional importance like Exeter, if it does not meet a regional need for provision of a broad range of subjects, including core science disciplines?

  As argued under the section on regional provision, it seems obvious that government /HEFCE should strive to enable and encourage universities in a region to collaborate together and where appropriate merge facilities, so that they can provide effective provision of science teaching, that is in accord with regional needs. If universities in a region collaborate to share a successful and cost effective chemistry (or other science) department, they should be rewarded for this by generous government funding. Mechanisms should be put in place to make it easier for two or more universities to share a chemistry (or other science) department and each gain the kudos from its success.

Some other points that we think are of key importance:

    —  Science (chemistry) graduates are attractive to a range of employers, there is very little unemployment amongst chemists and it has been shown that chemistry graduates make a bigger overall contribution to wealth creation in the economy than those from most other disciplines.

    —  Chemistry is a key discipline in many areas that are targeted by government for the future prosperity of a country driven by a high-tech economy:

    —  It is the core discipline in drug discovery and development.

    —  Research based pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries cannot survive in the UK without the provision of well-trained graduates.

    —  It is a core discipline in other industries that Pharmaceutical and Biotech companies are also reliant upon.

    —  Many other vital industries and public organisations cannot operate without well-trained chemists

        —  examples are: electronics (semiconductors, displays, LEDs, memory etc.)

        —  the food industry

        —  agriculture

        —  polymers and coatings

        —  environmental industries

        —  water industries, and many more........

    —  We need well-trained chemistry graduates to become capable school science teachers. The provision of well-trained and motivated graduates for science teaching represents a significant challenge for the future if we are to attract good students into science. Taking chemistry as an example, only 40% of students taking A-level chemistry are taught by teachers with a chemistry degree. The fact that chemistry graduates are attractive to a range of employers, and can benefit from well-paid careers, has for several decades pulled chemists away from teaching as a primary career option. The same is not necessarily true of graduates from other disciplines for whom teaching may be the major opportunity for employment.

    —  Many university chemistry facilities are well below the required standard. Better funding is needed to provide a range of well-equipped chemistry departments.

    —  The Government is spending a significant amount of money on schemes, such as the chemistry AimHigher, to encourage young people into university, but this will not be effective for chemistry when the overall provision is being reduced dramatically.

    —  It has been said that new courses are replacing those that are closing. However, courses purporting to be relevant to the pharmaceutical industry need to be scrutinised carefully. Many of them are diluted pseudo-science courses that are cheaper to run than "real" science courses and do not provide the type of training required by employers. Some universities that have closed their chemistry departments are now advertising such courses—See for example Biomolecular and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Salford. This course sounds attractive to potential students, but would not provide the rigorous science training required by the pharmaceutical industry—in short, such courses are cheating the students that take them. This is what will continue to happen if good science courses are not funded properly.

  This statement was prepared by Senior Scientists and Research and Development Managers at AstraZeneca and Pfizer, with significant contributions from people of similar stature at GlaxoSmithKline and Organon. The statement has also been endorsed by SEMTA (Sector Skills Council for Scientific Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies). We believe that the points made here are widely endorsed within the pharmaceutical and biotech R&D sector in the UK.

January 2005

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