Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL)


  1.  British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) welcomes the Committee's inquiry into the steps that need to be taken to safeguard an adequate level of science teaching and research across universities in England. We rely heavily on a strong university science and engineering base for the recruitment of graduates and research staff. This is also vital in the development of new knowledge and technologies to deliver competitive products and services to our customers, both within the UK and internationally. We acknowledge that the Government's 10 Year Science and Innovation Framework signals a substantial funding commitment to provide the UK with a world class science infrastructure. However, we were surprised that the Framework made little reference to the sustainability of science and engineering departments in the UK's universities, particularly as a key policy is to increase the number of graduates to 50% of all school leavers. This target is fundamental to the "upskilling" of the UK's workforce at a faster rate than the developing countries, but the mechanisms to achieve it need to be given greater transparency in the Higher Education strategy.

  2.  BNFL does not have a detailed knowledge of the funding complexities of university funding. However, we do have strong links with a number of universities. Nuclear sciences were, perhaps, an early example of what has now become a broader trend, with a progressive reduction in the science teaching and research capability at the UK's universities. The privatisation of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board, together with the cancellation of the Fast Breeder programme, prompted the closure of most of the nuclear degree courses and university nuclear research programmes. In the late 1990's we responded by establishing our University Research Alliances (URAs) at Leeds University, Sheffield University and the University of Manchester, to rebuild a nuclear research capability. More recently we have contributed to the creation of the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester, in partnership with the North West Development Agency and the university. The objective is to rebuild critically important nuclear research skills identified by industry and Government.

  3.  BNFL, together with the Dalton Institute and the URAs are the custodians of what now remains of the UK's nuclear skill base. However, the ageing profile within the nuclear industry, and the progressive loss of commissioning experience with Light Water Reactors threatens to undermine the Government's strategy of "Keeping the Nuclear Option Open".

  4.  The UK needs to identify similar strategic threats across the science and technology base. The problems of ever fewer students enrolling onto science degree courses and increasing numbers of university science departments closing must be tackled by new Government initiatives.


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

  5.  Our main concern is that the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) fails to recognise research that is of value to industry. University departments are being financially penalised for concentrating their efforts on successfully collaborating with industry and are increasingly threatened with closure. Moreover, industrial staff who transfer to academia do not have their credentials recognised because they do not have a track record of publications in the scientific journals.

  6.  The RAE of 2001 introduced a greater degree of selectivity in the allocation of funding, focusing it at a smaller number of higher graded departments. We support the strategy of creating a limited number of "centres of excellence" that will be able to compete globally, attracting the very best researchers and delivering research of the highest standards.

  7.  However, this has, effectively, created a "winner takes all" situation.

  8.  It had long been accepted that research budgets effectively subsidise the cost of teaching due to the inadequate allowance in the HEFCE formula for the higher costs of teaching science subjects. The loss or reduction of a research budget across many science departments has been accommodated by universities running these departments at a loss, effectively subsidising them from other lower cost facilities. This is unlikely to be sustained for much longer. The expectation of even greater selectivity in RAE2008 is inevitably forcing Vice Chancellors to focus funding on those departments that can compete successfully in RAE2008 and closing those departments that make a loss.

  The RAE is focussed on creating "centres of excellence", but industry's needs are being ignored. The departments on which industry depends are threatened with closure due to the loss of RAE research income.

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

  9.  It is necessary to create a limited number of national "prestige" universities to act as centres of excellence and provide the means of competing with the likes of Harvard and MIT. These would carry out the "cutting edge" research and act as flagships for the UK. However, this should not be at the expense of losing the breadth of teaching and research that is currently needed by industry in the UK. Many departments provide a wide range of "niche" expertise at both national and local level. It is unrealistic to expect this to be provided from the envisaged few centres of excellence. The UK needs to retain a good spectrum of science departments, both to compete at the international level and to provide technical support to local companies. Without this the "premier league" of centres of excellence will soon be operating in a vacuum with no "feeder leagues".

  10.  Competition and striving for high performance must be encouraged at all levels. But it is unrealistic to expect smaller or more specialised departments providing a niche expertise to a high-tech company, or technical support to local industry, to compete with these centres of excellence for research funding.

  11.  The UK needs to define what level of teaching and research support is required across this broad spectrum of science departments and allocate funding across this spectrum appropriately. The use of the RAE to single-mindedly create the centres of excellence, at the expense of all else, will ultimately undermine the science base in the UK.

  Centres of excellence are essential if the UK is to successfully compete in the global R&D market, but a broader spectrum of facilities must be supported to maintain a viable science base.

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

  12.  HEFCE's formula and factors that derive the funding allocation for each department do not properly reflect the additional present cost of teaching science and technology subjects. This is particularly true in respect of Health and Safety requirements and the cost of modern experimental facilities.

  13.  HEFCE's factor of 1.6 to compensate for high cost laboratory and clinical subjects needs to be re-evaluated against the real costs. We believe this will show significant under-funding. The financial stringency imposed from this under-funding may also be reducing the attractiveness of the facilities and curriculum to potential students. This is a possible contributory factor in the falling number of science graduates. We also believe that the introduction of variable fees will exacerbate this trend. Science departments will attempt to pass on the higher cost of teaching science subjects and so further discourage take-up.

  14.  HEFCE provides additional funding support for a wide range of supplementary factors, such as old and historic buildings, the size of the establishment, London weighting and specialist institutions. It seems reasonable to question the weighting of such factors against the need for additional support for subjects of national strategic importance.

  15.  The under-funding of science teaching has traditionally been overcome through subsidy from research income. However, the increasing selectivity of the RAE is rapidly reducing this option for the majority of science departments and they increasingly facing closure. We are moving to a position where industry, the RDAs and the Research Councils are combining to overcome the failings of the HEFCE funding formula. The Dalton Nuclear Institute has recently received a grant from the EPSRC with industry support that will provide funding for a range of nuclear MSc modules. This will put nuclear teaching at this level back on the map in the UK.

  HEFCE is failing both to fund the full cost of teaching science subjects and to recognise the strategic importance of these subjects to the prosperity of the UK.

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

  16.  We believe that teaching at the highest academic level can flourish in a vibrant research environment. Much of the early stages of the honours and foundation degree curricula are fairly generic. The value is added by quality of the teaching. The need to base the funding criteria on the interaction between teaching and research is therefore limited, being essential at the highest levels of academic achievement and reducing down the scale. We see no fundamental reason to always link research and teaching. We believe a funding model could be constructed to make teaching only departments financially viable.

  Research only contributes to the quality of teaching at the highest academic levels. Teaching must be properly funded on its own merits.

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

  17.  Teaching at the foundation degree level is probably best delivered at the regional level. Such universities would provide a valuable source of technical support to local industry. Teaching at honours degree level is probably best considered at the national level in terms of the national requirement for numbers of places and the range of subjects on offer.

  18.  However, each region also needs one or two larger universities of the Russell type to attract and retain the medium to larger sized companies. This is reinforced by the view of the RDAs, who argue that students tend to seek employment close to where they graduate. This is a particular problem for rural economies where school leavers select a university away from their home and rarely return, making it difficult for the region to attract and retain "high-tech" companies.

  19.  The more applied the research, the greater the working level involvement and, therefore, the greater the need for local or regional research facilities.

  Each region needs science research and teaching facilities to attract and support locally based companies which then provide employment for indigenous students.

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

  20.  The autonomy of the UK's universities is a cherished cornerstone of their constitution. However, we believe this derives from an era when the link between knowledge and wealth creation was more diffuse. Universities now occupy a crucial position in the prosperity of the nation. The UK is increasingly dependent on technological developments for our health, security and lifestyle. The university science base from which these evolve must be sustained. If the Government relies on market mechanisms to eventually bring home the importance of scientists to our economy, the protracted timescales for this to occur may result in irreparable damage.

  21.  A list of strategic skills that are essential to the health, security and prosperity of the nation and an estimate of the minimum viable size of the skill base is urgently needed. If it is not defined it can not be managed. The well-being of this expertise and skill base can then be monitored and managed in a proactive manner, with single point accountability for delivery.

  22.  The alternative is to persist with what the UK does now—attempting a recovery action when the symptom of demise becomes all too apparent. We believe the UK's nuclear expertise was historically a "crown jewel" in its technology strengths and yet its gradual decline was only recognised when, as the industry regulator, following an OECD publication, reported "if the nuclear skills was a hospital patient, it would be in intensive care".

  23.  The on-going reduction in the number and quality of science graduates leaving our universities is the greatest threat to the UK's future competitiveness. Post-graduates are an essential lifeline in the links between university research, business R&D departments and the process of developing future technologies.

  24.  The dual funding of university research must be better integrated, with HEFCE and the Research Councils developing common goals and performance targets. Delivery against these goals and targets should be monitored and measured.

  25.  A larger proportion of the increased science budget should be dedicated to the funding of key skills with a commitment, over extended timescales, to encourage long term planning.

  The university science base is vital to the UK's future competitiveness. Increased funding must be targeted at the strategically important skills.

January 2005

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