Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Sir John Cadogan

  I begin by observing that England is fortunate that the Select Committee for Science and Technology exists, thus providing a mechanism whereby the Executive can be challenged. We are much deprived in this connection in Wales. There is there no such mechanism of challenge to the Welsh Assembly Government nor do we have a Chief Scientific Adviser or a Minister for Science (indeed the word Science does not appear in the job description of any member of the WAG Cabinet). However it does appear that, for the moment, HEFCW follows the lead of HEFCE in financial allocation policy, so, if there is an improvement in England following the deliberations of the Committee, there is a possibility that Wales may follow suit.

  My submission bears only on Chemistry, although in general my comments are valid for Physics and Engineering.

  There are two main mechanisms whereby VCs presently receive money from the Funding Councils. The first is by way of the capitation fee and the second is via the bonuses flowing from the RAE. In future they will also receive much increased contributions to overheads form the Research Councils. Having received this money they are then free to spend it as they please. In this connection it is important to remember that if Government were to instruct HEFCE to increase the capitation fee for the hard sciences, as I argue below, VCs would still be free to commit it as they wished. So David Sainsbury's belief that Government does not believe in getting involved with an individual university's sovereign right to run its own affairs would not be threatened.

  The evidence is that a major cause of the problem lies in the size of the capitation allocation per student. The latest capitation figures which I have for Wales (which I am told closely follow those for England) are as follows:


Science (no differentiation between subjects)
Maths IT
Social Sciences
Medicine non clinical
Medicine clinical

  The figure for Chemistry is simply too small. Chemistry is an expensive subject, just like Medicine. It consumes expensive chemicals, it needs expensive equipment and technical support, its library and information costs are massive in these days of near exponential growth in scientific progress world wide. Importantly it also needs lots of laboratory space, space which is much more expensive than tutorial rooms for Law, say, particularly to meet today's standards of health and safety. Many Universities have a costing procedure which exacerbates the Chemistry problem by charging for total space (which includes everything such as recreational facilities, upkeep of gardens, administration, Vice Chancellor's accommodation etc as well as the space actually occupied by particular departments. Some Universities include the costs of loans for capital projects). So Chemistry departments not only carry a large charge for the space they actually occupy they also pay a big proportion (if not the biggest) of the very large cost of the of the overheads exemplified in parenthesis above which is charged in direct ratio of the space they actually occupy. The experimental evidence is there for all to see, the axe is falling on Chemistry because this is an expensive subject. If it was not Chemistry would not be dumped.

  Professor Graham Richards is Head of the Department of Chemistry of Oxford University, the biggest in the UK (no shortage of students there!) and in my view one of top three Chemistry Departments in Europe. He is on record as reporting that his Department is in deficit on the current funding model! Far from there being anything wrong with this Department everything is right, so the bean counters must have the wrong model.

  I now turn to the widespread canard that the reason Chemistry departments are closing is that there are not enough student applications. This was not the case at King's, London, Queen Mary, Exeter or Swansea for example. The VC at Exeter was honest enough to say that the reason was entirely based on unit of resource and not on student numbers. The VC at Swansea said to me "I don't want any Chemistry students , they are too expensive" echoing his pro-VC who said "Law is cheap". In this connection it is particularly of concern that the CEO of HEFCE, Sir Howard Newby, said (THES 10 September 2004).

    "Mr Clarke has said that there is no extra money, and, in any case, throwing more resources to address a demand side problem will achieve little: increasing the unit of resource will not, on its own, produce a single extra chemistry student".

  This is misleading, whether intentional or not, and is to seriously miss the point. The issue is that the unit of resource is too small causing VCs to close down departments where there is no shortage of students. It is more profitable to go for cheap students.

  Double the unit of resource for Chemistry and VCs would soon clamour for Chemistry students (whose numbers are on the increase by the way). Of course Sir Howard and his colleagues would have to cut the resource for others and that would open the flood gates of wrath but I would expect them to be able to handle that. Lest HEFCE should be tempted to stick to the line taken by its CEO, the Secretary of State should step in now with a strong Letter of Guidance. There are many precedents for such; I was on the receiving end of several during my time at OST (Letters of Instruction would be a better description). David Sainsbury has said that he is very concerned about what is happening to Chemistry but he doesn't control this budget. What about some joined up action rather than words from Government? Some, with me, may think it impossible to reconcile the fine words in The Ten Year Investment in Science with what is happening on the ground in some of our Universities. The future of the hard sciences and engineering in this country is at the mercy of local bookkeeping sheltering under the mantle of university autonomy. National and regional needs are being ignored.

  Apart from false arguments based on so called lack of demand and the sound arguments based on the central enabling role of Chemistry research, it is essential to remember that Chemistry teaching is vital to many other disciplines now that Biology Medicine and Materials are becoming molecularly based. It is no solution to let these disciplines teach their own Chemistry—just look at what has happened in the schools where so much Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics are being taught by Biologists. Take away Chemistry, the main language of so much of the NEW FRONTIER science, from a University and other disciplines also crucial to the future of the nation will suffer. This is in marked contrast to others that we can all name, some of which are not disciplines at all but are beloved of some VCs for their low cost.

  And what is the message to the young in the schools when they see Chemistry being dumped—that Chemistry is important?

  Rarely has there been such a serious national problem for which there is so simple a solution—instruct HEFCE to significantly increase the unit of resource for the hard sciences, particularly Chemistry.

January 2005

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