Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Society for General Microbiology


  The Society for General Microbiology, founded in 1945, is an independent, scientific, learned society dedicated to promoting the "art and science" of microbiology. It has now established itself as one of the two major societies in the world in its field, with some 5,500 members in the UK and abroad.


  The UK has a science-based economy and these are important issues. Any reduction in science departments impacts badly on the others and sends out the message that science is not important. We will not redress the problem of falling applications to science departments by closing them. Once a core science department closes, the University loses credibility in its whole science performance. Closing departments has to be fought at all levels if the United Kingdom is to continue its lead position in science. So much would be lost if we cannot bring good science to all areas of the country.


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

  Clearly, lower rated departments find it difficult to keep going, especially where the cost of putting on courses is high. Chemistry courses are a prime example, exacerbated by the decreasing interest from students. The funding formulae have had a detrimental impact on laboratory subjects in general, but in particular on smaller units in regional universities where it is difficult to transfer or buy in expertise. For example, Northern Ireland has lost its only Department of Geology. The region is geologically important and faces significant environmental issues that require geological knowledge, eg lignite mining. Students leaving Northern Ireland to take geology in mainland universities are unlikely to return. Hence, the region will suffer a lack of relevant expertise in the future.

  Funding of other subjects has been reduced such that the research base is founded largely on external income that is subject to fads and fashions and could undermine important broad subjects such as biology, biochemistry and chemistry. There is little difference between the outputs of grade 4 and 5 departments - the definitions used are very similar and the error with which they were applied in RAE 96 and RAE 2001 very great. Hence, grade 4 units have suffered disproportionately. The RAE has created a culture in which accountability is high but in which resource allocation models are somewhat blindly applied. This has had a bad effect on funding available especially for core science areas that are expensive and suffer in some cases from falling student interest.

  RAE measures outputs from individuals irrespective of their input—ie asking for the top four papers from a group irrespective of the level of funding, or number of grants that group has received. This has created a culture in which quality is sometimes sacrificed for quantity within individual departments, such that, the groups that get bigger and bigger and less and less efficient are rewarded, while those trying to run `lean and mean' operations suffer considerably. The effect is actually counter to what was desired from the design of the RAE metrics. There is more wastage within groups that are deemed to be successful and departments that are actually doing a very good job of converting input to output look as if they are doing a very bad job in comparison to the big operations in favoured institutes. This has made a difficult situation nigh on impossible in some departments.

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

  By concentrating research in fewer departments the diversity of research in the UK will decrease. Productivity is likely to decrease as well. Larger units often tend to be less productive per person, compared to a smaller one. Increasing the concentration of research in a small number of university departments is not desirable since it would lead to scientific deserts in many parts of the UK. Not all students would be able to attend the remaining research-led universities and many would lose the opportunity to benefit from a practical-based degree in a laboratory science. This would undermine the reputation of the higher education system of the UK as a whole. The loss of research from regions would lead to an even greater tendency to concentrate high tech industries and government scientific laboratories in a few places with a further fragmentation of the UK economy into "richer" and "poorer" parts. Regional universities provide the major portion of the local research base. Physics, chemistry and biology are all vulnerable to changing finances of universities and concentration of research in more central parts of the UK. The effect of this would be disastrous on local intellectual opportunities, challenges in health and environment and economic development.

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

  The process affected by Higher Education Funding Council for England is very damaging to all areas of laboratory sciences. For example, Queen's University Belfast has already seen nearly £2 million transferred from the budgets of science and engineering subjects to social sciences and humanities. Should appointments and recurrent expenditure follow these allocations, the result will be decimation of the sciences with physics, chemistry and biology all suffering from unworkable staff-to-student ratios and under-funding. A spiral of decline would lead inevitably to their closure. There must be immediate steps to address this imbalance between subject rations and subject needs, because these are having an extraordinarily unfavourable impact on the intellectual opportunities, health, environment and economic development of the UK. Already, courses are cancelled and practical schedules changed in order to keep within constrained budgets.

On 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 good balance between teaching and research is essential to provide good quality projects, and thus, both enthuse students and give them up to date skills. A science degree taught in a university without relevant research activity would be valueless as far as potential employers and international comparisons are concerned. No student with a choice would choose to go to such a university. This is because of the limited opportunities that such a degree would afford students with respect to practical work and diminished quality of teaching staff that are not contributing to the development of their subject. Both teaching and research elements of funding of science-based departments should be increased in real terms. A ratio within the range of 50:50 to 70:30 teaching:research income is an appropriate, viable target. A teaching only department might be financially viable only in very high demand subjects but in physics, chemistry and biology they would be unlikely to be able to recruit sufficient students of any calibre and turnover of good staff would be very high.

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

  This is essential as outlined above. It is arguable that the process of centralisation of scientific expertise in the UK has already gone too far. Students should have as diverse and high quality opportunities at a regional level, as offered centrally. Widening access for students from disadvantage backgrounds and disabilities is important; it would be inconsistent to create a situation where only students with no barrier to movement could study at a higher level subjects that are only available in a few central locations. Economic development in the regions requires support from HE research and production of skilled graduates at least as much as the more central parts of the UK. Destroying the research and therefore the HE base of the regions will undermine the UK economy as a whole and most certainly and immediately the international reputation of both HE and research in the UK.

On 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

  Special scholarships for undergraduate courses for students who are committed to go into teaching in core subjects would be useful. The government, on the one hand, is placing emphasis on science and science development and teaching and on the other hand has apparently not evaluated the impact of some of its decisions or those of Non-departmental public bodies, such as HEFCE. The government expects science to develop against a background of falling numbers of secondary school leavers with appropriate scientific background qualifications; against increased competition for these students from vocational schools (pharmacy, medicine) and against the back drop of a perceived lack of sufficient and attractive career options. It needs to join up some of its policies. Given that there is potential for Research & Development in each region, there should be at least one centre of R&D combined with teaching per region.


  Most Microbiology degrees are delivered within Biological Sciences Departments and if these departments have a 5 or 5* rating then Microbiology will survive. Otherwise, it would be far more exposed, as it is a `small numbers' degree programme.


  This evidence has been prepared on behalf of SGM by Professor Lorna Casselton, University of Oxford, Dr Ulrich Desselberger, Virologie Moleculaire et Structurale (General Secretary, SGM), Professor Iain Hagan, Paterson Institute for Cancer Research, Manchester, Dr Pauline Handley, University of Manchester, Professor Bertus Rima, Queen's University Belfast, and Professor Christopher Thomas, University of Birmingham.


  Society membership is largely from universities, research institutions, health and veterinary services, government bodies and industry. The Society has a strong international following, with 25% of membership coming from some 60 countries outside the UK.

  The Society is a "broad church"; its members are active in a wide range of aspects of microbiology, including medical and veterinary fields, environmental, agricultural and plant microbiology, food, water and industrial microbiology. Many members have specialised expertise in fields allied to microbiology, including biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics. The Society's membership includes distinguished, internationally-recognised experts in almost all fields of microbiology.

  Among its activities the Society publishes four quality, widely-read, research journals (Microbiology, Journal of Medical Microbiology, Journal of General Virology and International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology). It also publishes a respected quarterly magazine, Microbiology Today, of considerable general educational value. Each year the Society holds two major scientific meetings attended by up to 1,500 microbiologists and covering a wide range of aspects of microbiology and virology research. The governing Council of the SGM has a commitment to improving awareness of the critically important role of microbiology in many aspects of human health, wealth and welfare. It has in this connection recently initiated a "Microbiology Awareness Campaign" aimed at providing information to the government, decision makers, education authorities, media and the public of the major contribution of microbiology to society.

  An issue of major concern to the Society is the national shortage of experienced microbiologists, particularly in the field of clinical microbiology and in industry. To attempt to improve this situation long-term, the Society runs an active educational programme focused on encouraging the teaching of microbiology in university and college courses and in the school curriculum, including primary schools. Some 320 schools are corporate members of SGM.

January 2005

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