Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Biosciences Federation

The Biosciences Federation was founded in 2002 in order to create a single authority within the life sciences that decision-makers are able to consult for opinion and information to assist the formulation of public policy. It brings together the strengths of 35 member organisations, including the Institute of Biology, which represents 45 additional affiliated societies (see Annex). The organisations that have already joined the Biosciences Federation represent a cumulative membership of some 65,000 bioscientists and cover the whole spectrum from physiology and neuroscience, biochemistry and microbiology to ecology and agriculture. The Biosciences Federation is a registered charity (no. 1103894).


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

  1.  Income from both research and teaching is vital for most universities, and the challenge is to manage the balance between these according to the standing of departments. Research in universities has been funded at very much below the full economic costs for at least 20 years. The steep gradation in QR funding between RAE 4 and 5 ratings following the 2001 RAE exercise has impacted particularly on the financial viability of departments ranked below 5, and has been cited as a factor in recent well-publicised decisions to close physical sciences departments. Universities are increasingly pursuing strategies to maximise QR income, and focusing resources on groups capable of achieving 5 or 5* grades. Science departments scoring below 5 are vulnerable to closure for strategic reasons because of the extra expense for laboratories, technicians and equipment required for teaching as well as for research. It is often assumed that biosciences have been less affected than physical sciences because they have been relatively successful in retaining student numbers. But closures of departments and courses are beginning to impinge on the full breadth of biology, including some of the more molecular areas and particularly applied areas such as agriculture. Furthermore, threats to the viability of disciplines such as physics and chemistry are threats to the underpinning support of the current excellence of UK biosciences.

  2.  Both the provision of additional funding through the Research Councils to enable universities to recover the full economic costs (FEC) of research, and the change in RAE 2008 to a grade profile approach, could improve the financial viability of university science departments. The latter may remove the current financial "falling off a cliff" that results from a drop of RAE grade below 5, but this depends entirely on the weightings allocated to the new star grades for individual researchers. It remains essential that the very best research is funded at an internationally competitive level, but the weighting for work of national importance that has the potential to develop to become internationally competitive needs to be restored to something like its value prior to RAE 2001.

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

  3.  The Biosciences Federation recognises that critical mass of researchers and good shared facilities are often central to good biological science. In many areas of biology that require large facilities or specialised expertise, the concentration of resources is particularly necessary and, in any case, an inevitable consequence of a finite budget if high quality outputs are to be maintained.

  4.  However, the Biosciences Federation has argued consistently that the grade weightings applied after RAE 2001 have led to too much research concentration; it is already greater than in most comparable countries. For many subjects there is little evidence that research is more productive in large units (1), and in many disciplines it is clear that small groups can do research of international excellence. The Biosciences Federation is concerned that further concentration could eliminate whole areas of research and expertise from English universities and reduce the strength in breadth of knowledge and opinion that characterises the UK in international surveys (2). It is to be hoped that the grade profile approach in RAE 2008 will prove to be efficient in identifying and supporting pockets of research excellence in otherwise less research-intensive institutions.

  5.  Other likely consequences of a trend towards more research concentration include:

    —  restricting the availability of research-informed teaching;

    —  creating problems for less research-intensive universities in recruiting and retaining staff;

    —  making it more difficult for new areas of research to emerge;

    —  hindering the formation of new research teams outside the main centres and improving the performance of such units;

    —  reducing the capability to tackle regional research problems;

    —  loss of talented researchers to overseas institutions.

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

  6.  In a survey of Heads of Biosciences Departments that the Federation undertook in the autumn of 2004, 87% of respondents considered that the current unit of resource for teaching biosciences does not meet the costs of course provision. The consequences noted most frequently were an inability to provide an appropriate level of practical training, field work or project work; an unacceptably high student:staff ratio that adversely affects the student experience; and an inability to renew and maintain high-cost lab equipment. Biosciences courses have to be subsidised by various means, which makes them an attractive target for closure in order to reduce overall institutional costs.

  7.  Evidence has been emerging that the difficulty in providing adequate practical training in undergraduate courses is causing problems for the pharmaceutical industry. In his role as Chair of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry Academic Liaison Group, Dr Malcolm Skingle (GlaxoSmithKline) told the Federation: "International pharmaceutical companies have located in the UK in order to interact with the excellent academic research base. In recent years pharmaceutical companies have been alarmed to note that biosciences graduates frequently lack practical skills that would formerly have been taken for granted, and this has encouraged companies to recruit more staff from abroad."

  8.  The campaign by science-based organisations deterred HEFCE from splitting subjects in teaching price band B in 2003 following its consultation on the future teaching funding method. Save British Science pointed out, however, that the revised weightings that HEFCE introduced still meant a significant shift of funding from laboratory-based subjects to arts subjects. It is essential that TRAC methodology is used to determine the real cost of providing science courses, and for HEFCE to commit to meeting such cost. Any increase should not be achieved by shifting funds from one area of science to another, since this would defeat the primary objective.

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

  9.  It is not possible to define an optimal balance since this will vary among institutions. For all institutions, overall income from teaching and research will have most impact on the viability of departments. For both pragmatic and financial reasons, there should be a broad spectrum of offerings whose appeal will vary according to the needs and interests of individual students. Instead of all universities attempting to market themselves on the same model, they should emphasise their distinctive qualities and philosophies with regard to the higher education opportunities they provide.

  10.  The question as to whether teaching can be separated from research has been raised in a number of consultations in recent years. Among Federation societies that submitted views to the current consultation, a large majority again insisted that exposure to research is needed to provide enthusiastic and informed teaching. Otherwise there is a risk of teaching becoming stale, outdated, and uninteresting. The Federation supports the view that specialised final year teaching, which is often influenced by the research interests of the department, is better provided by staff with first-hand experience of the research. Set against the general statement that teaching and research cannot be separated is the abundant evidence that staff who have been recruited to major teaching roles, and assessed primarily on their achievements and potential in teaching, can be very successful teachers.

  11.  Among less research-intensive universities there is scope for imaginative solutions for exposing final year undergraduates to research-informed teaching. These include developing creative links with neighbouring research-intensive universities, institutes or industries, whilst focusing themselves on resources and innovations in teaching. Consideration should also be given to alternative models of higher education. Two-year Foundation degrees in specialised, teaching-only institutions could be encouraged for many students, with transfer to research-intensive institutions for an Honours year only for those both seriously considering, and capable of pursuing, a research career.

  12.  Provision of the current 3 or 4-year Honours degree with students having no access to research-informed teaching is considered undesirable, although it may be financially viable. Many university departments already survive on very little HEFCE research funding. Non-research departments would need to have a workload model that reflected the commitment to teaching, which would almost certainly mean a high student:staff ratio and consequently a further reduction in practical training. It is questionable how employable the graduates of such departments would be. It is likely that such departments would also experience difficulty in recruiting and retaining quality staff and maintaining morale.

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

  13.  It is essential in a leading Western economy and society that all the major branches of science are represented in the UK as a whole, and that there is the capacity and expertise to perform competitive research in all these branches at least somewhere in the UK. But it is difficult to argue that all branches must be represented in all regions if there is not the student demand for the courses, the capability of winning significant academic research funding, or the pull from regional businesses to provide industrial research funding support.

  14.  Set against this, the disadvantages of not maintaining a regional capacity in science teaching and research include:

    —  It is government policy to encourage more social diversity in higher education. Evidence shows that students from under-represented social groups are more inclined to live at home and study at a local university. If science disciplines are not fully represented this could lead to such students pursuing whatever courses are available rather than those that are of strategic importance to the UK.

    —  The forthcoming introduction of increased tuition fees could lead to increasing numbers of students choosing to study at a local university.

    —  The government is very keen to promote the development of small companies and existing science-based industries on a regional basis. Easy access to the science department of a local university is important for such industries in terms of providing consultation, research support and activities such as the KTP scheme.

The extent to which the government should intervene to ensure continuing provision of subjects of national or regional importance; and the mechanisms it should use for this purpose

  15.  The government should have the capacity to intervene, but first it must accurately characterise the problem, which has been brought about largely by a lack of cohesion in prior policy-making. For example, the present difficulties for the physical sciences are caused by a shortage of student demand for courses and an inability to recover the full costs of providing expensive science courses. Any action by the government must address these issues. The Federation would not support ad hoc subsidies to particular universities to maintain failing courses.

  16.  To address the demand issue, government action needs to invigorate science teaching throughout primary and secondary schooling, sixth-form colleges and Further Education colleges. This may need curriculum changes and improved resources for practical work as well as incentives for more good graduates to enter science teaching. The government should also encourage and support outreach activities from universities, scientific societies and research councils, for instance, and ensure that pupils are able to receive reliable advice on the opportunities that a training in science can open up. Bursaries in selected subjects may need to be offered to provide an incentive to study science in higher education.

  17.  The finance issue could largely be addressed by HEFCE identifying through TRAC methodology the real cost of providing science courses, and applying a more realistic unit of resource (see paragraph 6). This will be helped if the new grade profile approach in RAE 2008 leads to some relaxation in research funding selectivity, but three more years is a long time to wait for this development. Universities themselves have a responsibility to consider imaginative ways of sustaining the physical and applied sciences. For example, many crystallographers and enzymologists are chemists, and chemistry can be organised to generate stronger links with its end users in biosciences or materials science so as to reduce the overall costs to universities of maintaining chemistry expertise.

February 2005


  1.  Funding research diversity: the impact of further concentration on university research performance and regional research capacity. A report by Evidence Ltd for Universities UK (2003)

  2.  PSA targets for the UK research base. A report by Evidence Ltd for the Office of Science and Technology (2004)

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