Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Research Councils UK


  1.  Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership that champions the research, training and innovation supported by the seven UK Research Councils. Through RCUK the Research Councils together with the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) are creating a common framework for research, training and knowledge transfer. Further details are available at

  2.  This memorandum is submitted by RCUK on behalf of the seven Research Councils, and represents our independent views. It does not include or necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Science and Technology (OST). RCUK welcomes the opportunity to respond to this inquiry from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

  3.  This memorandum provides evidence from RCUK in response to the main topics and questions identified by the Select Committee. Further details of six of the Councils' discipline specific priorities, activities and concerns are contained in separate Annexes:

Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Annex 1
Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) Annex 2
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Annex 3
Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) Annex 4
Medical Research Council (MRC)Annex 5
Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) Annex 6


  4.  Anxieties about the financial sustainability of the UK research base as a whole, and about sustaining high quality research capacity across all disciplines and sub-disciplines have grown over recent years. The issues are wide ranging, and include rebuilding and maintaining the physical and scientific environment for conducting research (buildings, major equipment and facilities), attracting enough people into careers in research—and retaining them, maintaining international standards of excellence across the entire research base, and the funding structures and mechanisms (including assessment procedures) for supporting research.

  5.  Elements of the problem have started to be addressed, through successive infrastructure initiatives (JIF and SRIF), the Roberts review of science, engineering and technology, which drew particular attention to researcher salaries and careers, and through spending review settlements in 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004, which have been comparatively generous for the science base. In addition, the move to full economic cost funding has helped to identify the real costs of research and how these costs should be met.

  6.  Although this inquiry focuses upon the sciences in England it resonates more broadly with the current concerns of RCUK, OST and other funders about the sustainability of the research base across the UK and the health of research disciplines and sub-disciplines. This RCUK response therefore raises generic issues which are applicable across the whole research base eg the impact of the Funding Councils' formulae on the financial viability of all departments not just scientific ones.


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

  7.  The Research Councils fund the highest rated projects and individuals on the basis of peer review, regardless of departmental RAE rating. In practice, statistics collected by the Research Councils demonstrate a strong correlation between RAE rating and success in winning funding from the Research Councils for research, training or access to facilities.

  8.  It is clear that the RAE has a very significant role in driving research behaviour and HEI strategic management of research. The RAE should help create a healthy research environment which supports and promotes high quality, properly funded research; these should be the main drivers rather than unsustainable increases in volume of activity. In submissions to the recent RAE consultation exercises the Research Councils argued for the inclusion of institutional research strategies as part of the HEI submission package. These could be used by the Funding Councils to help develop coherent and sustainable future funding plans for HEIs. In addition, given the changing nature of scientific endeavour and the need to strengthen the UK's multidisciplinary capability Research Councils have continued to press the Funding Councils to ensure that the 2008 RAE gives sufficient recognition and weight to multidisciplinary research, collaborative activities and research aimed at influencing policy and practice.

  9.  Councils also believe that the RAE funding formula is compounding the difficulties for lower-rated departments in remaining financially viable: the way in which funding is distributed means that any department with less than a five could be in jeopardy. This could lead to a loss of research diversity and of pockets of excellence in otherwise less-than-outstanding departments.

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

  10.  It is Research Councils' policy to continue to fund excellent research irrespective of location. Research Councils do recognise that this contributes to an increasing concentration of research funding in a small number of HEIs and results in uneven geographical spread of investments. However, in some areas, RCUK believes that some further limited concentration may be desirable to increase the critical mass and sustain strength and depth of knowledge in the core university science departments and to generate a greater degree of concentration around key equipment and facilities. RCUK is also committed to working with other funders and HEIs to ensure that the UK has a research environment which enables multidisciplinary research to flourish. It is important that these multidisciplinary activities are embedded alongside, and linked closely with, strengths in existing disciplines. Closure of departments might reduce the scope for interaction between departments and for multi-subject courses that could encourage a multidisciplinary approach.

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

  11.  Whilst this is not primarily an issue for Research Councils, RCUK is concerned that the new teaching funding formula will disadvantage those laboratory-based subjects where cuts in the unit of funding are proposed and that this will exacerbate difficulties in recruiting undergraduates to courses such as chemistry and the physical sciences. Moreover, even in circumstances where undergraduate recruitment is buoyant, for example in the biosciences, this may be unsustainable in the longer term because increases in undergraduate number are significantly higher than real terms increases in expenditure.

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

  12.  The Research Councils are only one of the parties involved in the debate about the optimum balance between teaching and research, but as a matter of principle believe that research and teaching are usually best done together. Given the Research Councils' position on concentration, the balance in the research-intensive universities is likely to be (relatively) weighted in favour of research. Nevertheless, we also believe that the conduct of research within a department will improve the quality of the teaching. For example, it will help to attract higher quality staff (although the best researchers are not necessarily the best teachers) and will make the teaching environment more research-aware and assist teaching in staying up to date with recent findings. RCUK believes that all research students (masters level and beyond) need to be taught in a department in which a substantial volume of research is conducted.

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

  13.  The Research Councils have a national remit and adopt a UK-wide strategic view on research capability. However, whilst some university-industry collaborations are national or global, Councils recognise that there is a need to stimulate greater engagement between business and HEIs on a national and regional basis to help deliver the innovation agenda. For knowledge transfer to SMEs in particular, close proximity between the SMEs and the researchers in likely to be advantageous. This is primarily an issue for individual universities and their Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), although Research Councils also have a role to play in facilitating and enabling these relationships.

  14.  The Research Councils' strategic priorities for engagement with the RDAs are knowledge transfer (including continuity of funding to bridge the development gap and articulation of industry needs), training (including articulation of regional needs and involvement of companies in postgraduate training) and large facilities. At an operational level there is extensive interaction between the Councils and RDAs, particularly with those Councils with institutes. Councils and RDAs are working in partnership on a range of regional initiatives, collaborations and facilities, as well as promoting entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer from the research base.

F:  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

  15.  Not all HEIs can be research intensive and excellent at every discipline. It is therefore important to ensure that UK research funding is focused on the very best researchers whilst stimulating and supporting pockets of excellence in less research-orientated institutions. There is a need for all interested parties, including Research Councils, Funding Councils and the universities, to work in partnership to ensure that research capacity across the research base is maintained. This issue is being specifically addressed through the Research Base Funders Forum, which is initially focusing on the short term problems around health of disciplines and developing a set of metrics to help DfES, the Funding Councils, OST and the Research Councils create and implement evidence-based policy on intervention in subjects giving cause for concern.

  16.  RCUK has produced a summary of areas where there is a concern over the future supply of researchers and health of disciplines, together with information on grade profile and demographic analysis. This analysis reveals that the question of what constitutes a healthy research base cannot be answered simply: the answer is discipline dependent and not solely a function of numbers of staff or trends in student numbers. For example, there is universal agreement that the decline in numbers of full time staff in the physical sciences is of concern. However, there is also concern over the development, retention and recruitment of world class researchers in business and management, despite an overall increase in numbers of staff in these disciplines. Also, overall upward trends may mask shortages in key sub-disciplines, for example the biosciences appear healthy overall, but this masks gaps in whole animal physiology and some aspects of health services research.

  17.  Work is now underway to identify a small number of simple quantitative indicators, based on readily available information (Research Council and HESA data) providing insights into any changes in the breadth of the research community and its changing composition. Research Councils also see the value in producing reports, drawing on quantitative and qualitative information such as the proportion of permanent academic staff associated with a particular discipline and their age distribution, numbers of postdoctoral researchers and research students, level and number of sources of research income, demand for research funding and trends in outputs such a publications. This will help highlight emerging and potential threats at the discipline and sub-discipline level. The project should be completed early in 2005. Subsequently the Funders Forum will develop more general metrics on research excellence (outcomes) at institution level (eg a long-term project starting January 2005).

  18.  The health of the UK research base depends on the continuing supply of individuals at each level of the research community (undergraduate, postgraduate, postdoctoral, lecturer, senior lecturer and professorial). Erosion of this skills base in the UK is of particular concern to the Research Councils. RCUK believes that a multi-Council approach is needed to address skill shortages in key cross-cutting areas and to grow the population of researchers who possess first rate specialist, analytical and transferable skills to enable them to work in multi-disciplinary teams and outside of their discipline area. However, all Councils have an interest in monitoring the health of the research disciplines within their own remits to understand the ability of the research base to renew itself, and all wish to ensure that any cross-Council interventions are sufficiently flexible to enable Councils to take account of the particular needs and characteristics of individual subject areas and disciplines.

  19.  At the present time, in addition to the work outlined above, the Councils are deploying the additional funding to implement the recommendations of the Roberts Review to provide enhanced postgraduate stipends and postdoctoral salaries in areas of research where there are recruitment issues such as statistics and mathematics. Roberts funding for skills and career development is also being used to increase the level and awareness of transferable and careers skills by researchers. Monitoring and reporting will enable RCUK to build a cross-Council picture of the impact of these investments in due course.

  20.  Furthermore, all of the Councils already share information and develop joint policy and funding initiatives with each other. There is currently considerable joint activity between the Research and Funding Councils in this area. For example first, EPSRC, in partnership with HEFCE and SHEFC, is taking the first steps towards building capacity through the investment of £10 million in its new science and innovation awards. The purpose of these awards is to secure strategically important research areas that are missing or "at risk" in the UK. Many of these subjects have relevance for the broader research base, for example, in the life and environmental sciences, or in providing the fundamental knowledge that is exploited in astronomy, particle physics and the development and provision of large-scale facilities needed to keep UK research at the international leading edge. They are also essential for future developments in business and public services. Secondly, AHRB, ESRC and HEFCE are developing an initiative which will fund strategic subject centres and training in area based language studies. A major aim of this initiative will be to develop a cadre of researchers able to work at the highest level on for example the economics of nations such as China and Japan while at the same time being able to speak these languages fluently. Thirdly, initial discussions have been held between BBSRC and HEFCE on areas such as whole animal physiology and between ESRC and HEFCE on quantitative social science, and we understand that the HEFCE Board has recently agreed that quantitative social science should be a subject of national strategic importance.

  21.  In its recent scrutiny of the Economic and Social Research Council, the Committee suggested that a national Strategic Capabilities Fund should be established to address skills shortages and ensure national coverage in key subject shortage areas by building local capacity. RCUK would welcome the allocation of additional resources to support the development of such strategic capabilities, recognising that there are skills issues that could usefully be addressed through the Research Councils. However, ensuring national coverage in key subject areas is mainly an issue for the Funding Councils and would need to taken forward by the Funders Forum. RCUK has worked with the Funding Councils to prepare a report for the Funders Forum which highlights both whole disciplines and sub-disciplines in urgent need of investment if a strong research base is to be ensured. Both the Funding Councils and the Research Councils have expressed a wish to take forward this agenda jointly when the remaining allocations are made.

January 2005

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 11 April 2005