Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Annex 1

Memorandum from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

INTRODUCTION

  1.  There is a need for all interested parties, including Research Councils, Funding Councils and the universities, to work in partnership to ensure and maintain the future financial sustainability of the research base, and the health of research disciplines and sub-disciplines. In the biosciences, BBSRC has regular meetings with the heads of leading university bioscience departments from across the UK to discuss strategic issues, including research priorities and the impact of national research policies on the biosciences.

ISSUES OF CONCERN TO BBSRC

  2.  The overall picture within the UK biosciences is currently one of clear strengths, with a buoyant community competing effectively in the international arena. The recent reports by Evidence for the Office of Science and Technology, PSA target metrics for the UK research base, show that the UK share of citations in the biosciences is second only to the USA. Numbers of researchers in bioscience departments are healthy, and demand for research funding is high. BBSRC is consistently unable to fund all the internationally competitive grants proposals it receives.

  3.  In common with other research funders, however, BBSRC is concerned about the broad structural issues identified in paragraph 4 of the RCUK submission, especially infrastructure and research careers. It is not obvious that the HEI sector is yet in a position to sustain and capitalise on the current level of interest and expertise in the biosciences. For example, increases in the numbers of undergraduates in the biosciences are running at significantly higher rates than the real terms increases in the level of expenditure in bioscience departments. If the proposed changes in HEFCE's funding models for teaching are adopted the unit level of funding for the biosciences will fall, further exacerbating the problem in England at least. In addition, figures for lecturers seem to show a gradual falling away of numbers in several science areas, including the biosciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics and engineering. Where numbers of HEI staff are growing overall therefore, this may be masking a specific issue with teaching staff, or it may be the result of the uncompetitive rates of the lecturers' pay scale, which HEIs are trying to side-step by promoting staff to the senior lecturers' scale.

  4.  With respect to research careers, the main issues are set out in the Roberts Report, and the fellowship and student stipend initiatives announced in its wake will help alleviate the most pressing. In BBSRC's case, despite the healthy picture within biosciences as a whole, at a more disaggregated level there are signs of some difficulty. There is at least anecdotal evidence of skill shortages in certain areas, including whole animal physiology, animal diseases and in the interface areas with other disciplines. These are being addressed by BBSRC in part through targeted enhanced stipends for training awards and targeted fellowships.

  5.  BBSRC's major concerns, however, relate to areas outside its immediate skills base. The biosciences are becoming increasingly quantitative in approach, and many of the most significant breakthroughs are occurring at the interfaces between the biosciences and other disciplines, particularly the physical sciences, mathematics and computer science. Following the huge strides taken in mapping genomes, many aspects of the biosciences now involve the collection, storage, retrieval and analysis of vast quantities of data, requiring sophisticated understanding of mathematics, statistics and computing. It is therefore at the interfaces that the major issues facing BBSRC arise.

  6.  The Council has started to address some of these concerns, and is developing programmes in interface areas, in part working with the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics. In particular the BBSRC is:

    —  funding a research initiative on Selective Chemical Intervention In Biological Systems, an area developed in collaboration with the RSC and EPSRC, and concerned with the synthesis and testing of small organic molecules and their effects on important biological systems;

    —  developing a tools and resources funding stream that will allow engineers access to responsive mode funds from BBSRC to work on bioscience problems;

    —  considering how best to build on existing interactions with the mathematical sciences, probably through the funding of research networks.

  7.  BBSRC already funds significant levels of research in physical science departments, particularly chemistry. As at April 2004, 14% of the BBSRC grant portfolio (by numbers of awards) were held by Principal Investigators in non-life sciences departments, 66% of these being in chemistry departments, with an estimated spend in chemistry departments of £12 million in 2003-04.

RESEARCH AND THE REGIONS

  8.  BBSRC funds high quality research in all eligible HEIs in the UK. Funding currently goes to over 100 institutions across all regions. The Council's policy is to fund the highest rated proposals regardless of institution or region. Nevertheless we are keen to develop strategic links with other funders, including the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), where this will develop and enhance the UK's capacity in bioscience research. BBSRC and RDAs have common interest in ensuring that BBSRC-supported research is exploited. BBSRC has partnered with a number of RDAs in Knowledge Transfer activities, including Young Entrepreneurs Scheme and Industrial CASE awards, and BBSRC Institutes have benefited from joint support for activities such as provision of bioincubators.



 
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Prepared 11 April 2005