Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor MacDonald, University of Lancaster

  The Committee is inviting evidence on the following points:

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

   Grade 4 in the RAE means that departments include international and national research. It does not indicate weak research. But the funding model has potentially made many Grade 4 science departments non-viable. Universities have adopted a variety of mechanisms to cope with this. For example, some departments have been asked to take large student numbers. Research in others has been cross-subsidised from financially more viable departments. Neither approach has had the effect of improving the quality of research.

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

  We feel that it is entirely wrong to restrict science research to a small number of departments. It engenders a "comfort" culture, which in turn can lead to fossilisation in terms of new ideas and enthusiasm. Critically, it also restricts mobility among young researchers. A disastrous consequence of over-concentration might be that most students would attend universities without research in science. If science research is focussed in some universities and non-science research in others, then universities identified as research-led in other areas would simply cut science to maintain their research-led position.

  Modern science makes greatest advances in interdisciplinary work, both with other science departments and, increasingly, with departments in the social and management sciences. We are not advocating the unsustainable situation where all universities have the full spectrum of the sciences. Rather, we see a situation where each institution develops its preferred, integrated combination of the natural-social-management sciences and can compete for funds accordingly.

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

  Our experience is mixed in relation to specific disciplines. The extra funding given, for example, to Physics has been helpful but has not been sufficient to make a real difference. On the other hand, the reduced funding for Biological Sciences and Environmental Sciences has had a deleterious effect on their work. Rebanding Psychology puts serious constraints on laboratory-based work.

  More generally, we asked our Finance Office to do an exercise on the effects of rebanding and reweighting across different faculties. The exercise was based on applying the rebanding retrospectively to 2003-04. The income lost for our two science faculties together was £1.4 million, which went to humanities, social sciences and management. This means that the university received proportionally less funding than before the rebanding and reweighting exercise. While HEFCE may argue that it is up to the university to allocate its funds in accordance with its strategic plans, this is somewhat disingenuous. Universities have internal financial pressures and any shift in income will ultimately be reflected in shifts in resource. Quite simply, if less money comes in for science, less will be distributed to science. This seems a retrograde step at a time when the government is trying strenuously to strengthen the UK science research and teaching base.

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

  As a research-led university, we are opposed to teaching-only science departments. It is our experience that, whereas non-research active staff can teach adequately at Year 1 (and maybe 2) level(s), they are usually unable to deliver cutting-edge material to more advanced courses and are ill equipped to offer relevant project work. Science thus becomes more restricted, there tends to be more handed-down truth and a lowered ability to understand how science is made.

  Such a move could have far reaching consequences. Teaching-only departments would depend entirely on student demand and would have to put on courses to attract students, whatever the national need or employability issues. Science teaching would be two tier—with some students in non-local, research-led science departments asking high grades, others in local, teaching-only departments asking low grades.

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

  Students tend to attend relatively local universities. They will move away from science if they cannot do science at their local universities—except for high achievers who go to the institutions asking for high grades. Industry, particularly SMEs, uses expertise in local universities. Industry deserves/requires more than "handed-down" knowledge. In fast-moving industries the need is for up-to-date research, not for handed-down research. Teaching-only departments can pass on knowledge made elsewhere, but will not themselves be innovative enough to give industry the science innovation edge.

  There is, however, a strong case that regional capacity can be built up through inter-university collaboration. We have been working closely with other research-led universities in the north-west to develop, where possible, complementary science research programmes.

6.  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.

  Some recent Government initiatives, eg those aimed at stimulating growth in Mathematics and Statistics, have been very welcome and potentially successful. The introduction of Full Economic Costing will encourage us to critically examine our priorities and the efficacy of our financial models. More problematical nationally is how to deal with the decline in such essential subjects as physics, chemistry and engineering. As a short-term measure, departments could be helped by direct Government funding. Ultimately, however, their viability will depend on healthy student recruitment and retention in the field. That requires convincing schoolchildren of the value and personal benefits of a carer in science and technology.

February 2005

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