Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex 3

Memorandum from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

  1.  EPSRC welcomes this inquiry by the Science and Technology Committee as we have serious concerns about:

    —  the UK's capacity in some strategically important areas of the engineering and physical sciences research base. Research capacity is heavily dependent on the university sector but the base of permanent staff is shrinking in these core subjects (relatively and, in some cases, absolutely). Partly this results from a deliberate shift of resources toward new scientific opportunities in the life sciences, but partly it is an accidental consequence of the turning away from the hard sciences, where resources in universities largely follow student whims and the driving force for universities in appointing (or replacing) academics tends to be teaching loads;

    —  the supply chain of young people pursuing qualifications in engineering and physical sciences who will provide the future well trained scientists and engineers necessary for the economy as well as the research leaders needed in our universities.

  2.  The UK is dependent on engineering and physical sciences to provide the basis for the knowledge economy and to contribute to progress in the life and medical sciences. The attached paper (annex A) provides an analysis of the issues of sustaining the core physical science and engineering.

  3.  EPSRC is taking urgent action in the short term to strengthen research capacity in areas of scientific and economic importance that are especially at risk. In partnership with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) EPSRC has launched a pilot scheme to award three to five large, long-term grants (typically £3-5 million over five years) to support research groups (including support for up to three lectureships) in strategic areas. Examples of such areas include statistics, mathematics/computer science interface, chemistry/process engineering interface, power engineering, energy research and the emergent area of cognitive systems. A crucial part of the scheme is a commitment from the host university to continue to support the lectureships after the end of the grant to grow and sustain research capacity.

  4.  This pilot is a "proof of concept" stage and to have a real effect in halting the decline in research capacity a continuing programme of these awards is needed. In taking this forward EPSRC will work both with existing partners as well as seeking new ones (eg business and the Regional Development Agencies.)

  5.  The above is an indication of action being undertaken by EPSRC to address immediate issues around research capacity. Research Councils are just one of many partners that have a role to play in addressing these broad issues. To address the problem the development of a framework is needed which addresses the national and regional need for research and training in all key shortage areas, while respecting the autonomy of individual universities to make decisions consistent with their own policies.

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