Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex A


  We are writing as Hon Secretary and President of the Experimental Psychology Society in response to your call for evidence to the Science and Technology Committee's Inquiry into strategic science provision in English universities.

  Briefly, The EPS was founded in 1946. Its role is to facilitate research in experimental psychology, and scientific communication among experimental psychologists and those working in cognate fields. As such, we regularly liaise with the research councils on issues of science funding in the UK. The EPS is the foremost society for the scientific study of Psychology (with 20 members that are also Fellows of the Royal Society, and a further seven that are Fellows of the British Academy); it has an active membership of around 650, with members in mainland Europe and elsewhere overseas, including the US. Membership is restricted to scientists with a proven ability in Experimental Psychology (they must have published their work in a major peer-reviewed journal and have presented their work to the Society at one of its meetings). More information about the EPS and its history can be found at The EPS holds regular scientific meetings, three times a year, at which members and guests present their work; it publishes the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology and other occasional publications. It sponsors scientific workshops on special topics, and awards grants and prizes to facilitate postdoctoral, postgraduate and undergraduate research. The Bartlett Lecturer, chosen annually by the Society, is recognized as one of the major intellectual awards in Psychology.

  We believe that the provision of adequate resourcing is particularly germane in respect of Psychology, given that it is the largest scientific discipline as measured in undergraduate numbers, and ranks third overall. Also noteworthy is that, as a science, it attracts a greater proportion of women than do other scientific disciplines. It is also the case that, as a general scientific degree course, it offers significant transferable skills and given the numbers of students obtaining these skills, it no doubt has a significant impact on the graduate workforce and economy of this country.

  Below are brief comments on the 5 points for which you are requesting evidence:

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

  We believe that it is essential to fund excellence in science departments, and that it is right that where excellence exists it should be supported. We are concerned, however, that the funding formula has now become overly weighted towards the departments rated 5 or 5*, and departments that achieve national excellence and are awarded a 4 receive disproportionately low income on this stream. This in turn impacts on the ability to train the future research scientists that will sustain both the future science base and the future economy of this country.

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

  It is true that there are certain sectors in which large groups are required in order to enable scientific research. This is true in aspects of genetic research, medical research, space exploration, and so on. However, much of science is due to the endeavours of individuals working in small teams, with perhaps just one principal investigator aided by a research fellow and/or graduate student. In these cases, a well-funded department provides an infrastructure and ethos that is certainly beneficial. But to deny a talented individual researcher support because he or she happens to work in a university department that has not been deemed a "centre of excellence" is to impede the entrepreneurial spirit that pervades scientific investigation. We believe a balance can, and should, be found between catering for efficient research infrastructures as well as catering for the individual scientist. In respect of the consequences for teaching, we believe that concentrating top researchers in just a few university departments would seriously impact on the quality of teaching that would be afforded to the undergraduate and postgraduate populations, with consequent implications for the research base of this country.

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

  We are particularly concerned, given changes in the weightings given to Psychology in particular in the teaching funding formula, that university income "generated" by the large numbers of Psychology undergraduates is no longer sufficient to support the teaching of science subjects to the levels needed to support a proper education based on quantitative experimental approaches. You may know that HEFCE rebanded Psychology teaching recently, in a way which will shift funds away from many of our best Departments and therefore cause harm to initiatives in neuroscience, brain imaging, behaviour genetics and other high-cost areas. To be taught as a science, psychology requires intensive laboratory practical courses, computer courses, and training in statistical methods. In Year 3 of a typical course, each student undertakes an individually supervised research project that takes up many contact hours with the HEFCE-funded faculty member responsible for that student. Without adequate science-based funding, we are in danger of no longer being able to provide the intensity of practical scientific teaching, and the associated transferable skills, that this country's economy has enjoyed to-date. Although in principle the change in the weighting may not significantly change the teaching funding to individual institutions, we believe that the rebanding of Psychology sends a signal to universities that they need not invest in Psychology training to the extent that they once did.

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

  We see nothing wrong in teaching-only science departments, and indeed, Polytechnics, as they once were, provided an enormously fruitful science base through what were often teaching-only science departments. However, given that research-only science departments are unlikely to be financially viable, a balance must be struck in research-active departments between support for nationally and internationally recognized research, and support for teaching. There has undoubtedly been an increase in teaching and associated administration for research-active HEFCE-funded faculty, and we view this as an impediment to the high quality research that is in danger of no longer being the hallmark of the UK University system.

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

  We believe that regional capacity in science teaching and research is essential if we are to attract prospective scientists from different social and cultural communities within the UK. A danger inherent in centralizing science teaching and research in a few centres of excellence, or in a few geographical areas, is the attribution of elitism to scientific endeavour, and this would undoubtedly put off many of the population who may otherwise go on to become the leading scientists of the future. Indeed, scientific diversity, without which science cannot evolve and advance, would suffer were there not also geographical diversity.

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.

  It is unclear whether the Government should intervene in light of mechanisms already in place via HEFCE funding. We believe, however, that there has been a tendency to base formula funding of particular subjects on data which do not accurately reflect the true cost of teaching students in a particular subject or within a particular department. Whilst it is appropriate that HEFCE continue to manage funding provision of different subjects, we would urge HEFCE to encourage the collection of data which do more adequately reflect the true teaching cost. This disparity, between actual cost and the costs on which formula funding are based, is particularly noticeable in the case of the teaching of science subjects, and is certainly the case with our own subject, Psychology (and see our response in relation to the question on science subjects and the teaching funding formula).

Professor Gerry Altmann, Hon Secretary

Professor Andy Young, President

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