Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Keith Burnett, Oxford University

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

  The current funding provided by the combination of HEFCE and Research Councils is insufficient, as has been documented in several studies. The research funding is concentrated in the top-ranked departments, but even 5* science departments at Oxford are feeling financial strain, while those with slightly lower rankings are increasingly facing closure.

  We hope that fEC will help, but there is a critical period as it is phased in, and financial constraints are so tight that more departments may be closed or irrevocably damaged by cuts in this interim period.

  Experimental research is particularly hard hit by the HEFCE formulae, as it requires more infrastructure (space, meeting of health and safety regulations, etc) than does theoretical work. The move towards greater transparency means that management techniques such as charging "rent" for space are increasingly being used. Future advances that will contribute strongly to the UK economy will depend on both experimental and theoretical work and their interaction. Experimental work is recognised as a key part of the training of physicists.

  A country-wide survey of the costs of "sciences" needs to be careful to include a balance of experimental and theoretical work to avoid masking the cost of experimental work.

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

  The smallness of the small number is very controversial across the community. However, it is clear that there needs to be some possibility for supporting excellence. Now even excellent departments are struggling to survive and maintain their excellence.

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

  The overall support per science student has steadily decreased in real terms, with the result that science teaching has become seriously under-funded. Now the "enhancement" for the cost of teaching experimental subjects is being decreased, whereas experimental science is becoming increasingly complex. The combination inevitably forces a move to minimal training of students in modern experimental techniques. This cannot be good for the future of UK scientific research nor its science-based industry.

  Furthermore the overall shortage of funding for university science (teaching plus research) is demoralising UK academic staff to an extent that must also act to decrease the number of students deciding to study science.

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

  The United States is an example of a successful mixture of types of institutions. There are several highly esteemed undergraduate colleges (eg Dartmouth, Swarthmore) where faculty may conduct some research in the summers, but the emphasis is on teaching. Most universities do both teaching and research, with a range of weightings. The US example leads us to think that there is no one "optimum" and it is preferable to let each institution determine its own balance. The current UK finding system doesn't seem to allow such a choice, with departments dependent on research income for survival.

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

  The increasing personal costs of an undergraduate education will lead more and more undergraduates to wish to go to a nearby university and save money by living at home. Thus the importance of maintaining a geographical distribution will increase.

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:

  The fact that some departments have already closed is very alarming and should be treated as probable evidence that many others are endangered. Even those not faced with imminent closure will be losing out to departments in other countries in the international competition for the best faculty members in science. This is particularly true in experimental fields where the provision of research infrastructure is crucially important.

  At least an interim intervention is urgently needed until fEC is fully implemented and its benefits are felt in the universities.

  In addition, a realistic solution to the problem of the missing part of fEC for charity and EU funding is required. The principle of transparency in use of funds argues against using funding from one area to subsidise work in other areas. Charity support is not equally distributed over all sciences, but is concentrated in medical areas. It is good that universities have some freedom in deciding how to use their HEFCE income for strategic developments, but it should not be the norm that QR income "earned" by research excellence for example in a physics department goes to fund the missing fEC for charity-funded medical research. The logical consequence of transparency is that if the UK government wants to get the benefit of charity and EU funding, it should either work with those bodies to get them to pay the full fEC, or it should decide to provide explicit funds to top-up charity and EU grants.

January 2005

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