Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Royal AstronomicalSociety


  1.  There is a national problem in both teachingand research in science, engineering and technology (SET). Thisis not simply special pleading by academics, as Sir Gareth Roberts'(2002) Review and others make clear.

  2.  Physics education at degree level mustbe regarded as of strategic national importance. Astronomy andgeophysics provide a stimulating context in which to teach physics.They also have important roles in the public understanding ofscience. In particular, astronomy has a key role in attractingyoung people into science.

  3.  The impact of changing funding formulaeare marginal to the national (though clearly not individual) provision—Universitiesare underfunded, leading Vice Chancellors to rationalise provisionby reference to the costs of supplying lower demand subjects.This poses a threat to SET in many Universities.

  4.  The long term solution is a) better resourced/managedUniversities and b) attracting more undergraduate students toSET through better school teaching and careers advice. The lattershould trigger a feedback loop of attracting more scientists toteaching and more pupils to sciences.

  5.  Short-term intervention is almost certainlynecessary to protect SET provision. This could be targeted towards"key departments" (using criteria such as regional distribution,RAE rankings, QA reports), but the most important aspect is thatit needs to be "new" money, for example, from the Chancellor'spromised extra cash for SET. However, we know and understand theGovernment's reluctance to interfere in the running of Universities,which are autonomous bodies, and we are acutely aware of the negativeimpact on academics of further paperwork, performance targets,and league tables.

  The Royal Astronomical Society is the learnedSociety representing astronomers (both professional and amateur)in the UK. It also represents a significant number of professionalgeophysicists, particularly those interested in the solid earth(and comparative planetology)—those with primarily interestsin the shallow sub-surface are more likely to belong to the GeologicalSociety of London. A significant number of the Society's membersare employed in physics, astronomy and earth sciences departmentsof UK Universities. The Society is very concerned about the statein which science departments in UK Universities find themselves.We have recently commissioned two studies of UK undergraduateeducation, in astronomy and geophysics, to try to understand someof the causes of the decline, particularly in the numbers of undergraduatestudents studying these subjects, and to make recommendationsto stem it. The outcome of these studies will be reported laterthis year, and we are happy to share the results with the Scienceand Technology Committee. In conjunction with EPSRC, PPARC andthe Institute of Physics, we have commissioned a follow-up (tocompare with the first in 2000) International Review of UK Physicsin the UK; the panel will visit the UK in November this year andreport early next. Again, the results will be publicly availableshould the Committee wish to study them.

  We suggest that a sensible starting point forthe Committee's enquiry is to revisit the 2002 Sir Gareth Roberts'Review. In his covering letter, Sir Gareth states:

    "The Review has identified a number of seriousproblems in the supply of people with the requisite high qualityskills. They are not equally spread across science and engineering;indeed, the aggregate numbers of students with broadly scientificand technical degrees has risen in the last decade. However, therehave been significant falls in the numbers taking physics, mathematics,chemistry and engineering qualifications. These downward trends,combined with deficiencies in transferable skills among graduates,could undermine the Government's attempts to improve the UK'sproductivity and competitiveness. Furthermore, these disciplinerelated problems will have negative implications for researchin key areas such as the biological and medical sciences, whichare increasingly reliant on people who are highly numerate andwho have a background in physical sciences."

  The trends identified in that report have continued,and there is therefore a continued, increasingly serious, threatto the nation's productivity and competitiveness. Thus the issueis not simply science teaching and research across Universities.The Roberts review made a number of recommendations, from schoolslevel (since schools provide the "raw material" forhigher education) through to employment via the Universities.Implementation of these recommendations would have a significantpositive impact on the situation, both in terms of the scope ofthe enquiry, but also more broadly in terms of the "health"and wealth of the nation.

  The Government's own 10 year Science and TechnologyFramework has a number of key guiding principles:

  "The strategy will provide a frameworkfor a successful and competitive science and innovation systemin the UK, based on:

    —  a financially robust network of universitiesand public research laboratories across the UK;

    —  world class research;

    —  a continuing step-change in the responsivenessof the research base to the needs of the


    —  raising business investment in R&Dand innovation and encouraging stronger business engagement withthe ideas and talent of the UK research base;

    —  making the supply of science andtechnology skills more responsive to demand;

    —  greater flexibility within schoolsand universities to attract the skills they need; and

    —  greater public understanding of,engagement with and confidence in UK scientific research and itsinnovative applications"

  We will refer back to some of these principlesbelow. They are not all covered by the points raised in the invitationto give evidence, so we comment further at the end of this document.We now address the specific issues on which we were invited togive evidence; some of our remarks cover more than one issue withina specific response, since they are to some extent linked. Forthe same reason, we do not address them in the order in whichthey were posed.


  The main reason that University science andengineering departments are closing is the fall in numbers ofstudents wishing to study these subjects, whether measured asa proportion of the total higher education student population(which is increasing) or even in terms of actual numbers. "Tinkering"through formulae associated with RAE grades, weightings givento different science and engineering subjects in the teachingfunding formula, and other manipulations of income merely helpdetermine which departments in which institutions close, ie thosejudged by management to be weakest. A far more significant impactis expected through the change to full economic costing on researchgrants (ie the destruction of the dual-funding formula), whichis likely to stimulate many more closures. This is not to saythat the RAE formulae and teaching subject weighting changes do/willnot have any effect on viability of individual departments inindividual institutions—of course they do/would. Managementof Universities look at how their "cost centres" (oftendepartments) function within the funding model used by that institution.Those that are consistently in deficit tend to be (depending onwhether those staff the institution wishes to keep can be re-deployedelsewhere within it, redundancy costs, whether it hosts a high-profileexternally-funded facility, and the like) the ones closed downto keep the institution viable, regardless of arguments relatedto strategic need, uniqueness, quality of the staff, amount ofrecent investment etc It sets departments against departments,and colleague against colleague. Since funding comes into theinstitution formulaically, it is hard to argue that the moneyshould not be spent formulaically—members of a more successfuldepartment would not be happy providing a long-term subsidy toa "falling" department, when they see plenty of usesfor the money within their own. Appeals higher up the line forchanges in the formulae used are met with the response that, althoughmoney is earnt formulaically, there is no need for the institutionto disburse it through the same formula. Of course, each institutionhas its own cost model, so a "failing" department inone might be successful in another, through something as simpleas the way space was costed, for example. Thus we have a scenarioof closures simply due to Universities responding to short-termmarket forces. There is no real budget policy beyond this: fiddlingwith formulae is a marginal activity. Does the Government wishto ensure a long-term supply of qualified scientists and engineersfor the UK beyond that which the present market will supply? Ifso, it needs to put a policy in place and reflect that in theway budgets are set—budgets need to be the tools of policy,not a substitute for policy. Ideally, this policy would surelyinclude stimulating supply and demand, but in the short term,it is almost inevitable that a significant element of pure subsidywill be required even to maintain the status quo. We make somesuggests below concerning stimulating growth.


  With high costs associated with both teachingand research, and falling student numbers, science and engineeringdepartments are the most vulnerable. The current teaching weightingsare insufficient to compensate for the additional costs of educatinga science or engineering student, but the money Universities receivefor educating undergraduates is insufficient anyway—it'sjust that the gap is larger in these subjects. (Witness the recentstatement by Oxford University that they are to reduce their numbersof "home" students in favour of full fee paying studentsto cut the amount by which they subsidise teaching.) Re-adjustingthe weightings within the science and engineering subjects isno solution. The earlier proposals were seen by those in scienceand engineering departments that would have lost out as compensatingsubjects that had done a poor job of undergraduate recruitment—theircosts are higher per student simply because the overall cost of,for example, maintaining a piece of laboratory equipment is dividedby the smaller number of students it was servicing. A furthereffect of the shrinking science and engineering population isthat each department teaches its students more "in house".There are two reasons for this. The first is to retain a higherproportion of student FIFE income—for example, whereas physicsstudents would have been taught mathematics by colleagues fromthe mathematics department, they are now far more likely to betaught mathematics by physicists. The second is that they haveno choice if the "partner" department has closed down.Neither enhances the educational experience of students.


  Astronomy and geophysics are subjects taughtand researched in only a small number of institutions and it isunrealistic to expect regional capacity in these subjects. Fewundergraduates specialise in them—Society members who areUK University academics tend to spend most of their undergraduateteaching time with physics or geology students. However, we havea hard time understanding how a University can claim to teachphysical science if it doesn't have the fundamental building blocksof physics, chemistry and mathematics departments. Since, as theRoberts review, the DTI "SET Fair" (Greenfield) report,and numerous other studies, have noted, the UK needs more physicalscientists, it makes sense to provide/maintain regional capacityin these subjects, if only because increasing numbers of studentsare studying from home, or in places where living costs are lower,to reduce the debt they (or their parents) build up during theirundergraduate studies. What we are seeing instead is an increasingconcentration of both teaching and research in the physical sciencesin fewer institutions. Universities are becoming unbalanced—theymight have a big physics department, but no chemistry department.This is detrimental to teaching, and also makes the departmentsthat survive more vulnerable—a small tweak in funding formulae(teaching or research), a couple of failed large grants applications,or a need to replace a major facility, and they can be struggling.


  We have argued that the concentration of bothteaching and research is happening de facto through closures,which themselves are governed by "market forces" affectingwhere and what students choose to study, and how research moniesare distributed (both as a result of the RAE formula and throughresearch grant and commissioned research income). There is nopolicy or strategy associated with it. There is no attempt toassess how the losses affect the responsiveness of the researchbase to the needs of the economy, business investment in R&Dand innovation, business engagement with the ideas and talentof the UK research base, and the ability to respond to demandin the supply of science and technology skills. Even if the assessmentwere made, there is no mechanism for using it to intervene toprotect a department, since Universities are autonomous bodies.Thus the pattern of closures and concentration of research ishaphazard. This cannot be healthy.


  Teaching is best done in Universities with asubstantial research effort in the relevant subjects, both mainand subsidiary, relevant to the course a student is taking. Having,say, a physicist teaching chemistry because the chemistry departmenthas closed, or having chemistry taught by a chemist in an essentiallyteaching-only department (or by the "tame" chemist kepton in the physics department to satisfy the teaching need afterthe chemistry department closed) is a poor second. Many of uscan provide examples of our research informing our teaching, andthe "extra" this brings to teaching is frequently favourablycommented upon by external reviewers during quality assuranceassessment. There is an unfortunate assumption in some quartersthat departments with strong research records do this at the expenseof their teaching. In most cases, the contrary is the case—teachingis better in departments where the majority of staff are involvedin high quality research. However, for many academics, most oftheir research is undertaken in their "spare" time,with greater than 60 hour working weeks being the norm. For most,it is not the balance between what we see as our "core"activities of teaching and research that is the issue, but theincrease in time spent on (largely pointless and irrelevant) administrationand paperwork. Increasing student-staff ratios have an impact,too, as does the extra time most of us find we have to spend on"welfare" and pastoral care aspects of having studentseg worried about debt, and undertaking more paid work to the detrimentof their studies and health.


  The S&T 10 year Framework's guiding principlesmention the need for "greater flexibility within schoolsand universities to attract the skills they need". Unlessor until the UK reverses the decline in numbers of students studyingscience and engineering at undergraduate level, the situationcan only deteriorate, and more and more departments will close.We have already argued that Government must intervene—theUK's continuing prosperity depends on having a numerate, scientificallytrained workforce to sustain high technology industries and thelike. However, Universities are just one area where change isurgently needed. At the same time, Government needs to improvethe teaching of science and mathematics in schools. Most of usworking in science departments in Universities see the poor qualityof school science and mathematics education, and the lack of goodcareers guidance, as the main reason why students do not wishto study them at University. There are too few teachers who aretrained in relevant subjects (eg physics is often taught by ateacher without any post-school physics education), and schoolscience laboratories are not well funded/equipped. Other problemsexacerbate the situation, such as the perception of science asnon-trendy, and not leading to a high earning career, and of scientistsas old, grey haired men with beards in white coats. How are wegoing to persuade young people to study science if they believethat the salaries associated with likely career paths are suchthat they will never be able to afford to buy a house? Perceptionthus applies to the subject itself, and its career prospects.

  We are privileged, being involved in astronomy,space science and geophysics, in studying subjects that attractenormous public interest and are stimulating contexts in whichto convey and teach basic mathematics and science, especiallyphysics (geophysics interest sadly boosted significantly by theSumatran earthquake and tsunami). The Society takes its "promotion"role seriously, putting considerable resources and effort intomedia activities (eg press releases, speaking and appearing onradio and television, lending our support to other bodies involvedin public understanding of science) and education. Ours and otherrelevant learned Societies, other interested groups, and individuals,all put significant effort into supporting school science teachers,through training courses, providing teaching materials, and speakingin schools. However, this tends to consist of a plethora of uncoordinatedactivity, which therefore is somewhat piecemeal and does not havethe impact it might. We also have difficulty in finding workingteachers willing and able to belong to and participate in ourEducation Committee, due to conflicts with their teaching commitments.The situation would be alleviated if such activity were viewedas part of their CPD and commitment to the strategic developmentof education.

January 2005

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