Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from AstraZeneca

  1.  The UK economy is dependent for its success upon the innovations made, predominately, by the pharmaceutical and aerospace sectors. Companies within these sectors rely on the UK science base for supply of trained scientists and engineers and the dynamic interactions with academia that engender the creation of ideas and promote innovation. In order to sustain a vibrant and flourishing environment for economic growth it is imperative that the teaching of SET subjects and provision for sustainable research in universities, to international standards, is given high priority and pursued rigorously.

  2.  We strongly recommend that the Government takes a holistic approach to science education from primary level, through secondary and higher education and develops a cohesive strategy that delivers the quality outputs required by companies operating in the UK, namely excellent scientists and engineers. Focus on one part of the education system may lead to imbalance in other parts and not produce the solution initially expected. It is critically important that teaching and research are not disconnected as it is only through research-informed teaching that the UK can continue to develop gifted scientists for the future.

  3.  AstraZeneca is pleased to make a contribution to this important inquiry and welcomes the opportunity to discuss this topic with you in greater detail than this brief response allows.


  4.  The recent changes in HEFCE's research funding formulae are unhelpful. They have directed funding towards the 5 and 5* rated departments at the expense of those departments rated 4 and to the detriment of scientific research in the UK. The amount of funding is inadequate to sustain an internationally competitive science base. In most fields of scientific research that are of current importance, the highest level of equipment and infrastructure is required in order to compete at an international level: this is very expensive. The changes in the funding formulae have already resulted in closure of a number of university physical science departments notably at Newcastle and Exeter universities. If this trend continues, we will face a situation where we lose critical mass in many of the physical sciences subjects, a situation from which it would be extremely difficult to recover.

  5.  The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) provides a measure of research quality that is useful when determining where to place research collaborations in the absence of any other knowledge. However, we question the value of the RAE when it becomes disconnected from the overall university education process. We are resolute in our belief that the RAE should recognise industry-sponsored research and industry outputs such as patents in addition to joint publications. It is our view that the RAE has resulted in teaching in universities becoming downgraded in importance. One example of this is Salford University. Although not strongly rated for its research capability, Salford has excellent chemistry teaching departments and has provided AstraZeneca with many excellent students and graduates.


  6.  Concentrating research within a reduced number of university departments would be to the detriment of SET teaching and research in the UK. However, we do recognise that it would be both inefficient and unreasonable to have a large number of very expensive departments, each with a relatively low volume of research output.

  A small number of large departments would not provide a suitable career structure for UK scientists compared to that which exists today. One consequence of this is likely to be that scientists leave the UK to pursue careers overseas and that the UK becomes a less attractive place in which to conduct research. This would lead to a lack of investment in the UK by companies due to the reduction in the quality of the UK science base.

  7.  It is important to maintain both sufficient critical mass and quality teaching and research in SET subjects, in order to provide the calibre of scientist required to pursue research that is of international standard. A range of skills across all disciplines is required to produce a vibrant and sustainable research environment. This is unlikely to be the case if there a fewer universities.

  Any rationalisation of research provision needs to be better managed and co-ordinated within England and Wales. For the reasons above, it is imperative that we also have a funding system that enables the UK to maintain good teaching departments throughout the country.

  8.  In addition, there is a danger in focussing funding too sharply. To have only five or six research departments in one subject, for example, chemistry, runs the risk of developing too narrow an academic resource pool, which would be unhealthy.

  9.  We do believe that there is merit in encouraging universities to collaborate in order to capitalise on their relative strengths. The concept of regional universities collaborating in chemistry or physics for example may offer a genuine solution, eg the East Midlands. The Government's recent announcement to create "science cities' is an ideal platform on which to promote collaboration between universities using "science councils' as the conduit. In the North West region the NW science council has been particularly successful in this respect.


  10.  We are very disappointed that HEFCE has chosen to reduce the multiplier for clinical subjects from 4.5 to 4 and laboratory-based science, engineering and technology from 2 to 1.7. The consequence of this is a reduction in funding relative to the arts and humanities. We appreciate the requirement to broaden participation but feel that the multiplier for SET subjects should not have been eroded. Clinical and laboratory based subjects are obviously more costly than classroom based subjects, but practical experience is a key requirement of the science education process. Too often the practical component of degree courses is minimised in order to save costs to the detriment of the education received by the student.

  11.  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 recoup the shortfall through HEFCE 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.

  12.  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 science subjects. Real-cost funding is required now.

  13.  Teaching undergraduate science has to be made profitable in order to encourage Vice-Chancellors to support it in the long-term. The resource provided by HEFCE is inadequate to cover the full cost of providing sciences courses and results in pressure on universities to abandon subjects such as chemistry and/or close departments. One result of which is a decrease in the number of talented and enthusiastic scientists and teachers. If this trend continues and culminates in a downward spiral then the ability of companies to recruit highly talented employees from the UK will be severely affected.


  14.  It is vitally important that science teaching is not separated from research since if left unchecked this will result in a further decline in the standards of teaching of SET subjects in the UK and a decline in the number of students entering the system, to the severe detriment the UK science base.

  15.  A SET policy framework needs to be developed which has good quality metrics and measures of assessment for the balance of research and teaching, both of which are important to the higher education SET base.

  16.  There is a clear interdependence between teaching and research. Research-informed teaching is instrumental in driving forward the boundaries of science and developing motivated scientists who will in turn enthuse the next generation of scientists and teachers. Learning from research projects is also an important part of the undergraduate curriculum. Teachers who continue their professional development through involvement in research, keep up to date and provide enthusiasm and relevance in their teaching and will continue to inspire young people.

  In addition to further financial resource, lecturers should be allowed more time for teaching and curriculum development.

  17.  We suggest that consideration is given to a change in the composition of departments to include Research led departments, Research/Teaching and Teaching only departments, with a select number of world-class Research led departments, and a higher number of Research/Teaching and Teaching only departments. The important drivers are the quality of the teaching, the content of science course and that the UK continues to be a leader in biomedical research.

  18.  Departments that provide good teaching in addition to some research should be encouraged. These departments should be judged on the overall value of their provision, not just on research quality or the level of research income. Such departments can provide a valuable stepping-stone for talented researchers who later move on to be successful in bigger research departments. Chemistry departments such as Bath, Exeter, Salford, have typically provided this function. Sadly, of these departments, only Bath still survives.

  19.  Departments that can attract a significant number of students and show that they produce high quality science graduates, who are well regarded by employers and by research universities should be rewarded. However, some universities now run "diluted" science courses, which are cheaper to teach and sound more appealing to the uninformed student than straight chemistry. In our opinion, such courses (despite their branding), do not provide graduates with the skills or depth of understanding that employers demand. These courses should be targeted for consolidation as they lack value and relevance for industry.

  20.  The research led departments will continue to be major providers of chemistry graduates. However, their teaching tends to be geared towards high-calibre students who start university with strong academic backgrounds and good preparation.

  21.  Unfortunately, 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 will become an "elite" subject, only taught in the universities that are virtually inaccessible to students that have not fully developed their academic skills at age 18.

  22.  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 a core purpose. Teaching excellence is too often 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.

  23.  It should be remembered that departments within universities and/or institutes may have excellent teaching capabilities although the universities may not be 5 or 5* rated in terms of research. It is crucial to the UK science community and the UK science base as a whole that such departments receive funding appropriate to their international standing in teaching. Moreover, there must be strong discouragement to those institutions that achieve a high RAE ranking at the expense of neglect of teaching.


  24.  This point has been addressed to some extent in item 2 above.

  Regional universities play an important part in the local economy providing employment and associated benefits in addition to fulfilling their primary purpose of teaching and research.

  25.  It is important to retain teaching and research capacity in regional universities and to ensure that such universities are strong and well funded. A good geographic spread of institutions will act as focal points and attract able students into science. If we move to a situation where financial considerations mean that more students live at home, we must ensure that each region has a share of quality universities. The funding system should reward collaboration between universities in order to ensure that financial resources are used optimally.

  26.  Many students increasingly attend universities in their region and, if we are not to deny them the opportunity to study SET 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 UK economy. Therefore, it is an imperative that regional capacity in science teaching continues.

  27.  In the past, many students obtained science degrees by studying (often part-time), at Further Education colleges and polytechnics. These institutions used to offer rigorous chemistry courses, which were ratified by RSC (eg GRSC inter alia) or CNAA. The provision of such courses at these local colleges has essentially disappeared and universities are the only institutions that can take this place, but at present there are relatively few courses that satisfy this void.


  28.  The biomedical research base underpins future drug discovery and development. The ability to sustain and develop the UK biomedical research base will bring positive benefits to the UK economy.

  In order to sustain a world-class organisation of scientific excellence AstraZeneca has an absolute requirement for creative and innovative individuals with extensive scientific knowledge. In some disease areas, we struggle to find graduates and PhDs of the required standard and in sufficient number to provide us with a choice.

  29.  It is important to recognise that the demands of the pharmaceutical industry for new graduates and PhDs does fluctuate. Consequently it is difficult to plan for a constantly changing recruitment scenario. Communication of our skills requirement to academia in a realistic time frame to enable courses to be developed (BSc, MSc) to address any shortages, coupled with the requirement for experienced tutors in such areas is a difficult process. The demands of our business require both innovative experts in new/emerging areas in addition to those core or mature fields eg pharmacology, enzymology. Reconciling such supply and demand for new recruits is not straightforward.

  30.  In particular we are experiencing a deficit in the number of individuals who are willing to work with animals, an acute lack of graduate and PhD in vivo pharmacologists, a paucity of scientists in areas of integrative science such as drug metabolism and pharmocokinetics and diminishing numbers of suitably qualified chemists, toxicologists, post-graduate pharmacists and pathologists. Furthermore we are concerned that the level of numeracy displayed by an increasing number of graduates over the last 10 years has decreased. As a consequence many graduates do not possess the level of mathematical ability required to pursue a scientific career in the pharmaceutical industry. The pharmaceutical industry routinely uses in silico prediction, cellular and pathway modelling which require extensive theoretical appreciation of biochemical mechanisms. However, bioscience students are not equipped with sufficient mathematical and physical knowledge and skills necessary to perform effectively in these key areas. This pressing weakness within the UK system must be addressed urgently by government.

  31.  The impoverished mathematics training in the UK is of great concern to us. This problem appears to begin early in the education process at primary and secondary levels, such that degree course candidates are less well equipped with mathematical skills on entry into university. Consequently, they graduate poorly prepared for theoretical problem solving required by the pharmaceutical industry. This situation will be further exacerbated as the pharmaceutical industry moves towards an increasing "in silico"/predictive era. This situation is not sustainable and the ability of the pharmaceutical industry to remain competitive will be affected. The paucity of excellent mathematics teachers coupled with a lack of recognition of the value of applied mathematics in the school curriculum are key contributory factors. Mathematics is critical to scientific performance and should be a cornerstone of the education system. To rectify this position requires urgent government action in training, recruiting and rewarding appropriately good mathematicians.

  32.  It is our firm view that the Government should provide both the funding framework and strategic direction in order to maintain the science capability critically required for biomedical research in the UK. Government should not direct individual universities, but should create the framework and provide the infrastructure and funding such that the Vice-Chancellors, supported by Council can lead their university in pursuit of a comprehensive science and education strategy. Graduate courses curriculum should be based on national needs linked to a clear strategy and not on market forces driven by students as "customers" rather than "products" of higher education.

  33.  We recommend that government encourages Vice-Chancellors to continue to run science courses by making it financially viable for them to do so by improving the weighting of science subjects. Furthermore, development of criteria for what constitutes a "top-rated" university department in Chemistry, Physics, Maths should be developed. The government 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.

  34.  The Government should work with industry and academia to review the entire science education system in the UK and ensure that it is "fit for purpose". A holistic analysis of the many changes affecting science education from schools through to graduate and postgraduate education needs to be undertaken. This should be related to a government strategy for UK science education and biomedical research. Following this, measures need to be put in place within schools and universities (with assistance from industry) to ensure that relevant and quality teaching and research in biomedical science is maintained.

  35.  Specifically, greater funding should be made available for core disciplines such as chemistry, physical sciences, mathematics and the biomedical sciences. Science teaching and research must be conducted in well equipped schools and universities.

  36.  Focussed investment in science education at all levels, primary, secondary, graduate and post-graduate, against a clear set of objectives is required. Coupled with greater involvement of industry in curriculum design, course content and application, this should create an exceptional education system and vibrant research environment for young people and reinvigorate interest in science subjects.

  37.  Incentives, rewards and continuous professional development for SET teachers need to be developed. We strongly recommend that the government substantially increase the salary and other benefits of properly trained mathematics and science teachers even if this leads to a differential of teachers' salary. Improving opportunities for continuous professional development, coupled with greater pay and benefits of SET teaching are some of the most fundamental ways of promoting SET education and inspiring young people to enter into SET careers.

  38.  Industry, academia and Government must continue to work together to ensure that the biomedical research base in the UK is well funded, produces excellent research and superior teaching, is sustainable and an attractive place to conduct biomedical research.

  We hope that this brief response is helpful to you in your aspiration to create a world-class science base in the UK.

January 2005

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