Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 220-239)


18 OCTOBER 2006

  Q220  Chairman: Strategic science provision, Minister. What recent discussions has the OSI had on the impact of the current funding mechanisms on science in universities?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: In preparation for next year's Comprehensive Spending Review, OSI has had a number of bilateral discussions with DfES, Research Councils and Funding Councils regarding science funding in universities. Discussions have focused around the issues of long-term research sustainability, full economic costs, science research infrastructure funding, and continued knowledge transfer, including under the Higher Education Innovation Fund. Monitoring by both the Funding and Research Councils has highlighted the smooth implementation and success of the first year, of 80% full economic costs. The recent independent study by JM Consulting has also shown the success of the shift in tackling the backlog of investment in research infrastructure.

  Q221  Dr Iddon: That is good news and I hope that those discussions lead to some fruitful money for the universities. We make no excuse, Lord Sainsbury, for banging on about this because, as you know, the Committee has been worried about the funding of science in universities for some time. Both the Royal Society of Chemistry—of which I am a Fellow, and that is a declared interest of mine, incidentally—and the Institute of Physics have in the last few months produced these reports which are based on TRAC-based costing data which has been supplied by the Government—in one case eight chemistry departments and, in the other, 10 physics departments. It is clearly shown by these two reports that there is a lack of funding for supporting universities for hard science subjects. Therefore, my question is this. Is the use of TRAC-based costing data likely to lead to increases in science funding in universities and to an alteration of the ratio, which is now 1.7 sciences to arts and humanities, instead of 2, as it was formerly?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: There are two different parts to this. There is the research funding and the teaching funding. Because we now have TRAC data on the research funding, we have a very good position on that and it is pretty much fully funded. I think that there is a real issue about the teaching of science subjects and how well that is covered by the funding from HEFCE. It is essential that we get that sorted out, because what it shows is that if you do not have good research money to help you run a chemistry department, the chemistry department, on the basis of the teaching alone, may not survive. That is why we have seen various closures.

  Q222  Dr Turner: We have just been through the near-miss of the chemistry department at Sussex; there is a proposal for closing physics at Reading. Are you aware of any other universities offering STEM subjects at present which are considering closing departments?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Not that I know of. However, I think this goes back to the previous question. You have not asked the question why they are doing that. It is a combination of the number of students coming through but also, I suspect even more importantly, this issue that the teaching money will not cover a teaching department. So there are two things we have to get right. We have to get the costing of the teaching side right and we have to do work—on which, as you know, we are doing a lot of work—on how you increase the number of young people doing, in particular, A-levels in science, who will then go on and do it at university.

  Q223  Dr Turner: It is very good that the Government have identified STEM subjects and recognised the importance of maintaining basic sciences, but they have to do more than that and make sure that, when there is a problem arising in any given university, there is some active support mechanism. One of the things which was notable from the Sussex incident was the fact that HEFCE was virtually unable to do anything. It was other pressures which prevented that closure. If it had been dependent on HEFCE to intervene and offer support to avoid it, it would have been a lost cause. What are your feelings about what the government should be doing to put, if you like, some muscle behind their recognition of the need for STEM subjects?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think the answer is to get the basic funding right. I think that we should try to avoid, if possible, one-off deals with particular universities. That will get us in a huge mess. There is always the question of is the funding right, but also is it efficiently run? If you start doing one-off deals, it would get into a real mess. The thing is to get the basic funding right and then let the universities get on with it.

  Q224  Dr Harris: What is the earliest time at which departments in universities can expect to see some fruit of your view that the funding should be got right, with the implication that it is not right at the moment? Next year? The year after?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: HEFCE are talking in terms of having better information in 2007 on this. It is then a question of what that information shows and how fast they can move on it. However, I totally agree with you: we need to get on as fast as possible with this.

  Q225  Dr Harris: Reading is proposing to close its physics department and the Government have told us that they think that the supply of these subjects should—and I quote from the Government's response to our last report on this—" . . . be ultimately driven by student and employer demand". It cannot mean surely that there is employer demand for fewer physics graduates coming out of Reading and the rest of the South East? It does not seem to make sense.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: You must be clear between a situation where long-term you can have real problems and the current situation. There is in this context no problem about finding enough places for people who want to do physics. The one issue is, even here if you cut down the number of physics departments, then there is no doubt in my mind that—if you have good physics or chemistry departments—by working with schools, local schools, they can encourage the number of people to come through. But in the strict sense of, "Are there enough places in universities to cover for all the students who want to do physics or chemistry?", that is not a problem. Where we have had closures, HEFCE has been able to increase the numbers at nearby universities. So that is not a problem at this stage.

  Q226  Dr Harris: But that is student demand. One could argue that if we are to increase the number of STEM graduates needed just to fill the teaching places, where we need qualified teachers, then closing departments leads to a capacity problem. You just do not have the capacity left to increase if some other government policy suddenly produces more graduates. I would like you to deal with that and, secondly, the question of employer demand. The inference is that there is employer demand for media studies graduates, graduates in forensics and music as a combined course, and not an employer demand for physics and chemistry graduates; when in fact, from everything we have heard, there is a demand—from teaching if nothing else—for those areas. So I do not understand why the Government are not being proactive—more proactive, quicker—in response to employer demand for STEM graduates.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: First, it is a capacity question. As I think I have said, there is not a capacity problem if the students come forward. Secondly, we live in a free society and in a free society, unlike the good old days in China, we cannot tell students to do particular subjects. We have to rely on the students to be motivated to do it. So the way that you act on this is by dealing with things particularly at schools. There are some real problems which we have identified and we are taking action on, which are issues to do with the qualification of the teachers; allowing the best pupils to do triple science rather than double science, and so on. This is how you can intervene in the system, but we cannot tell people to do physics or chemistry at universities.

  Q227  Chairman: You can incentivise them, Minister, surely? If you have a market—which the Government clearly want in higher education and they unashamedly say that there is a market—you, of all people, know that how you activate the market is to incentivise things that people perhaps do not want, but you want them, for the good of the company or the good of the country, to take.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: When you say "incentivise", if that means we give particular bonuses to people who do physics and chemistry, I think that this is always a rather double-edged sword. It says, "Do this and we will give you more money" but it also says, "There are problems about people doing this subject".

  Chairman: But government policy says, "We will give you more money if you want to teach science". That is the government policy.

  Q228  Dr Harris: And it is still less money than other subjects.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think it works rather well, because in those subjects you do have to respond to the market. In those subjects—for example if you are very good at physics—you can get other jobs in the market. I think that having policies which ignore the markets in that context is nonsense. So I am very keen that we have—and we do have—more incentives for people to do physics teaching, and we also now, as you can see, are developing courses to train people who come in and help biology specialists to be physics teachers. That is rather different from trying to get people to do physics at university by giving them more money—which, as I said, I think is a rather double-edged sword.

  Q229  Adam Afriyie: I have two brief questions. From the evidence we have received here and from my understanding of it, HEFCE does not have much power. It seems to monitor what goes on in the market and cajoles a bit, encourages a bit, and makes a few observations, but it does not really do very much. Are you happy with that situation?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: We have a very fundamental principle which HEFCE operates, which is that it does not dictate to a university which subjects it teaches. I would be very reluctant to change that principle, which I think is a good one.

  Q230  Adam Afriyie: So is it basically left to market forces, with a bit of advice from HEFCE?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No, it is left to the decisions of individual universities to run their affairs independently, which I think is a principle we all keep repeating. When it comes to the crunch, that is the issue. Do you dictate to universities what they should teach or do you allow that to be their own decision?

  Q231  Adam Afriyie: The second question is this. Do you agree with the Institute of Physics that the use of the TRAC-based costing data will lead to more funding for physics? If that is the case, then who will be losing funding?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My own guess is, as I said, that science-based subjects as a whole, the teaching of them, is under-funded. I think that there has been some quite good evidence of that.

  Q232  Adam Afriyie: Will there be more money overall, so it does not matter that a bit more goes to physics?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: One would like to think that, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review, this issue will be taken on board and that, where there is further funding, it will be directed at where the greatest need is—which I think is this particular area.

  Q233  Adam Afriyie: To be absolutely clear, therefore, if there is no additional funding and physics gets more, then logically some would have to be taken away from elsewhere? Just logically?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes, that is mathematics.

  Q234  Chairman: But "Minister promises more funding for science teaching in universities" is an excellent comment to come out of this morning. Moving on—

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I would not dream of saying what the Treasury will do . . . !

  Q235  Chairman: We will stop at that point! Framework 7, Minister. What progress has been made in negotiations on the EU Framework 7 Programme?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Progress continues to be made in the Framework 7 negotiations, and a final deal is expected in November, allowing for the timely launch of this important Community instrument. Despite some concern expressed that a delay in concluding the Financial Perspective negotiations could lead to a delay in the launch of Framework 7, successive Presidencies have maintained the momentum in the negotiations, enabling the Council to agree a common position text on both the nuclear and non-nuclear parts of the Framework 7 Programme at the Competitiveness Council on 25 September. This was a good achievement, requiring the resolution of longstanding and sensitive issues on human embryonic stem cell and nuclear research. It is hoped that a Presidency text based on these discussions will be circulated for approval within the European Council later this month, allowing for a Second Reading deal with the European Parliament at the end of November.

  Q236  Bob Spink: Does it matter if there is a delay in the launch, since Framework 7 seems to be not fundamentally different from Framework 6?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes, there always is, because you have teams of people who are working on particular project areas and are hoping that they will be able to get continuing funding under a new framework programme. If that is delayed, as it has been in the past, then you will find that you have teams of people who do not have the funding they were expecting.

  Q237  Bob Spink: Just looking at the finances of the Framework 7 Programme, €50,000 million is the total. Of that, €3,500 million will be going to nano-sciences; €4,180 million will be going to transport, including aeronautics; information and communication technology gets €9,110 million; and the whole environment, including climate change, gets €1,900 million only—which is, by my calculation, just a bit less than 4% of the total budget dedicated to what is the greatest problem facing mankind at the moment. Do you think this balance is right?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I would have to say that I am very surprised at the figures you give. My own impression is that environmental issues have quite a significant part in this, but I would have to check those figures because I do not have them in mind.

  Q238  Bob Spink: Let me add that there is also €2,300 million dedicated to energy and, I think, €2,750 million dedicated to nuclear, both of which are greater than environmental and climate change together. I would be delighted if you could write back to the Committee on that, Lord Sainsbury, and let us know what your views are. Finally, embryonic stem cell research. Perhaps I could start by saying that integration of international co-operation is a key part—in fact, it is Part 1 of the four basic premises of Framework 7—and we need to co-operate with major institutions around the world on embryonic stem cell research because of the potential benefit this offers mankind generally, making sure that we push this technology forward as quickly as possible. What steps will be taken to make sure there is co-operation and collusion between the Weissmann Institute, Harvard, MIT, and other key institutions around the world that are doing stem cell research?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I do not think that they are a particularly significant part of the Framework Programme; but of course we do give a lot of efforts to international collaboration—there would be a lot of collaboration taking place through the Medical Research Council and BBSRC in these fields.

  Q239  Bob Spink: Do you think that the programme actually gets it right? I know that you supported the agreement. Do you think that it gets the balance right, in discouraging cloning and changes or modifications to the human genetic heritage, whilst at the same time promoting therapeutic stem cell research, which offers so much benefit to mankind?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I agree with you on the cloning part of this but clearly, on the therapeutic part, it is a compromise. It is a compromise because this is a very difficult subject for EU negotiation; because you have some countries which are totally opposed to it and some countries which, like ourselves, are enthusiastic about it. The result is that it is a compromise. It is a rather curious compromise but it sort of works, in the sense that it says the actual production of the stem cells will not be funded by EU money but their use for research will be. That was a rather good piece of negotiation to move this subject forward, and enables us to get on with it.

  Bob Spink: I congratulate you on your pragmatic approach to this.

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