Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the University of Wales

  Although we have academic positions in the University of Wales, we believe the enquiry to be conducted by the Science and Technology Committee with regard to university funding within England will be relevant to the current situation in Wales. We therefore hope that the committee will accept this submission of evidence on the impact of current procedures on the funding of Science within Higher Education.

  The School of Biological Sciences in which we work was awarded a 4a grade at the last RAE. This means that, on average, all of our academic staff can be considered research-active and many do work of international significance. Despite this, the failure to fund fully departments that achieved 4a grades during the last RAE forced this University to go through another round of job cuts to balance the budget. As a result, staff redundancies within the higher education sector are increasingly the result of financial rather than scholarly considerations. Thus, despite assurances from HM Government of increases in the flow of funding for science the future here is not at all secure, particularly as the level of research achievement required to obtain significant research funding in the next RAE is not yet clear.

  Is there any intellectual merit in slicing up the funding cake into larger but fewer pieces and letting the rest of the sector go hungry?

  While there may be practical infrastructural advantages in the concentration process, recent funding trends will inevitably reduce diversity in biological teaching and research and fail to reflect the nature of scientific discovery. Research has indicated that the most efficient and intellectually productive units for research consist of relatively small groups averaging around four people. The location of such groups is of secondary importance as high quality ideas often emanate from individuals working alone or in small groups at disparate locations. It may be true that large resources are required to capitalise on new ideas, but this is very often more to do with the commercialisation, exploitation and/or further development of scientific results rather than the quality of the original scholarship.

  It is arguable that biological science in particular is so diverse that it presents too many questions and encompasses too many disciplines for its research to be adequately covered in a relatively small number of institutions. Indeed, the research enterprise is a pyramid, with the "high-flyers" at the apex standing on the shoulders and dependent on the efforts of the "foot-soldiers" at the base. It should not be forgotten that it is the latter that provide the numerous citations that give journals in which the former publish their high impact factors.

  An understanding of the scientific "process" and enjoyment of science as a subject and a career are not enhanced by having to work in poorly resourced and demoralised institutions, perceived by staff, students and parents to be ostracised from the main stream, and with increasingly little to offer in terms of educational diversity and experience. Efficiency and value for tax payers' money should not simply be measured by staff/student ratios but by some estimate of quality of experience.

  In any case, value for money has already been achieved within higher education due to a combination of the relative collapse of average pay over the last 20 years, a massive reduction in all staff categories (academic, technical and administrative) and a steep rise in student numbers. Our primary and secondary institutions are not now treated in this manner: how can it be justified for the higher education sector?

  The idea of "teaching only" science departments is the equivalent of "false accounting" and a detrimental step to take when there is an increasing need for graduates to service the needs of modern economies based on practical science. At least until recently, the majority of academic staff were research active in some capacity or other and needed, therefore, to be aware of and able to interpret the scientific literature. We would argue that this is an essential aid to good science teaching in the long-term. One practical example is the contribution to undergraduate practical classes and final year student research projects by way of materials derived from and ideas relating to staff research. A change to "teaching only" status may have little immediate impact on teaching quality in the short-term; it might even improve due to teaching becoming the main focus. However, research experience in successive generations of staff will decrease, soon resulting in teaching from text books alone and with little understanding of the "process" by which that text-book information has accumulated. Many more students will thus be graduating without a full appreciation of the value and process of scientific research. There can be little merit in this learning outcome!

  We feel that it is ethically unacceptable for students who may wish to attend their local university to be disadvantaged due to selective regional neglect, no less than when attending school. The research experience—the essence of science itself—should be available to all science students in higher education, as appreciating and being able to apply scientific method is the major quality that a science student should possess. Government funding for infrastructure maintenance and development, along with support staff provision should go to the institutions more directly than it does at present. Too great a dependency on the "full" funding model for grant awarding may benefit the individual researcher, but will be a disaster for the Institution.

  It will lead to "boom and bust" in higher education and will prevent stability, long term planning and investment.

  We must carefully consider what we want from "science" graduates.

  Knowledge without reason and understanding is not science.

January 2005

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