Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex A to EPSRC Submission—Sustaining the Core Physical Sciences and Engineering


  1.  At a time when the competitiveness and productivity of advanced economies depends increasingly on science and scientists[37], there is a turning away from science, particularly among the young and particularly in the core physical sciences (figure 1). The problem was elegantly and comprehensively analysed in the Roberts Report ("SET for success: the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills"). This is a long-term problem needing long-term solutions (some of which were initiated with the implementation of the Roberts Report).

  2.  There is an even more immediate problem, however. The UK's research capacity in engineering and the physical sciences 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 see for example figure 2) as is research income and research outputs such as the number of published papers. 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.

  3.  This paper is concerned with sustaining the UK's research capacity in important areas of the physical sciences and engineering by increasing the quantity of high quality research, reducing the dependence of that capacity on student numbers. That dependence has already led to the closure of 79 university departments in six years in these fields. There is wide concern about the national and regional implications—for example the Institute of Physics has talked of "physics deserts".

  4.  Action is required to meet the needs of the UK economy and to facilitate further progress in other areas of science.


  5.  The physical sciences and engineering are remarkable for their importance and pervasiveness throughout the economy. Work by SPRU has demonstrated that:

    —  industrial R&D managers in all sectors rank research in computer science, engineering and materials as the scientific disciplines most important to them;

    —  while the pharmaceuticals sector shows a high reliance on the life sciences, in other sectors the physical sciences and engineering are more important and more pervasive (see, for example, figure 3);

    —  industrial sectors dependent on engineering and the physical sciences represent about 85% of all UK exports;

    —  the industrial sectors with the highest dependence on engineering and the physical sciences are those with the fastest growth of added value per employee (figure 4);

    —  postgraduate scientists trained in engineering and the physical sciences are employed widely throughout the UK economy, including particularly the private service sector (figure 5).

  6.  It matters even more in that, as the report of the Lambert Review states, UK industry is increasingly looking to the university research base to undertake much of its research. It is essential that university research is of adequate capacity and balance.

  7.  These concerns are not unique to the UK. In the USA, where there has been a similar swing away from the physical sciences and engineering, concerns are being voiced that the economy no longer has an adequate research base in these fields.


  8.  Much of the rapid and exciting research progress in the life and medical sciences has depended on earlier breakthroughs in the physical sciences (eg x-ray crystallography and synchrotron radiation, nmr, amino-acid sequencers, optical tweezers, bioinformatics). This trend will continue. For example, a survey of leading scientists, conducted by PREST, showed that the fields in which excellence is required to sustain the respondent's research were:

    —  for medicine: bioinformatics, imaging technology, physical sciences in general, engineering;

    —  for biological sciences: biophysical chemistry, computational biology, bioinformatics, chemistry and chemical engineering;

    —  for earth and environment: mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, engineering.

  9.  The same messages are confirmed in the BBSRC and NERC Strategic Plans.


  10.  The reduction in the UK's research capacity in engineering and the physical sciences has happened over a long period and it is not easy to call the point at which some redress is needed. For example, universities' total external research income in engineering and the physical sciences has fallen from 43% in 1985-86 to 33% in 1999-2000. Figure 6 shows the rate of change in recent years. What is clear, however, is that contraction will continue unless positive action is taken to stop it. Further decline could severely hamper improvements in competitiveness in the UK economy. And the restored research capacity has to be in the UK; if it is elsewhere we will begin to lose the ability to understand and use developments elsewhere and will not maintain the research environments necessary to produce trained people.


  11.  There is a need to restore research capability without undue reliance on undergraduate student numbers. This will require ongoing and concerted action by a number of bodies. EPSRC is taking a lead by piloting Science and Innovation Awards which are designed to strengthen capacity in areas of economic and scientific importance that are especially at risk. A continuing programme of these awards will be needed to halt the decline.


Figure 1:  Trends in numbers taking A levels, first degrees and doctorates in different fields (from the Roberts report)

Figure 2:  Relative change in Wholly Institution Funded HEI staff numbers for different fields.

Figure 3:  Importance of academic Research in Materials and Biology for Industrial R&D Managers

Figure 4:  Changes in added value per employee for industrial sectors in which engineering and physical sciences are most relevant (high EPS) and least relevant (no EPS)

Figure 5:  Distribution of Postgraduate Scientists between Sectors compared to Total Workforce.

Figure 6:  Relative change in HEI's external research income in different fields

37   Used in the generic sense to encompass the full spectrum of science, engineering and technology. Back

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