Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 11

Submission from the Russell Group of Universities


The impact on The Russell Group of Universities


  The field of physics generates significant gains for the UK economy. Key contributions to the national economy include:

    —  High R&D spending: Spending on R&D in physics-based sectors amounted to £3.3 billion in 2004—almost a quarter (24%) of total R&D spending in the UK. Physics-based sectors are a significant contributor to Government's R&D spending target.

    —  Significant export volumes: Physics-based industries accounted for almost a third of the UK's exports in 2005. Physics-based sectors exported £92.9 billion and imported £109.8 billion worth of goods and services. This accounted for 29% of the total value of UK exports and 30% of imports.

    —  National output: Businesses using modern and advanced elements of physics in their business processes contribute £70 billion to national GDP, making up 6.4% of the UK's total output (this is comparable to the economic output produced by the finance, banking and insurance sector combined)

    —  High productivity: When productivity in physics-based industries is compared across all industries in the UK, the physics-based sector comes out as a high performer—being almost twice as productive as the average. In 2005, GVA per employee in physics-based sectors was approximately £69,000; about 70% higher than in the UK as a whole.

    —  Job creation: The physics-based sector has created one million jobs, concentrated in 32,000 businesses, and more than one million indirectly supported by these businesses.


  Despite physic's valuable contribution to the UK economy, some worrying trends have led to it being defined as a "strategic and vulnerable subject":

    —  Significant closures of physics departments: Since 1994, the number of physics departments has declined by 30%. According to Materials Today, UK department closures have more to do with funding not matching the costs of lab-based subjects. Numbers of physics undergraduates have actually been rising, albeit not as fast as in other subjects. The University of Reading announced the closure of its (29 faculty-strong) physics department in 2010, due to the university's inability to "subsidise the loss-making department".

    —  Concern about the supply of graduates: The Confederation of British Industry has continually voiced concern over the lack of physics graduates available to UK science-based companies. In March 2007, the CBI warned that more students must study science (including physics), engineering, and technology or the UK will lose its world-leading position in industries such as aerospace. In August 2007, it noted that science and engineering companies are already struggling to fill posts. 80% of engineering or industrial companies and 67% of energy, water or utility companies expect a shortfall in overall graduate recruits this year.

    —  Increased competition from international competitors: Other countries have made firm commitments to increasing science (physics) funding. A reinforced commitment to maintain physics spending is a key step government could take in addressing these global challenges.

    —   Since 1999, China's spending on research and development has increased by more than 20 per cent each year. Spending by central government in 2006 reached £4.7 billion, compared with £3.2 billion by the UK.

    —  South Korea has increased its scientific research workforce by 70,000 and increased public funding on R&D from 2005 to 2006 by 15%. With its "U-Korea" programme, public and private funding will exceed £35 billion by 2010 and Korea aims to rank among the top ten countries for nanotechnology by 2010.

    —  In the US, President Bush signed into law "H.R. 4664", a five-year reauthorization bill for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which authorizes a doubling of the NSF budget over five years.

    —  On 30 November 2007, Vladmir Putin promised to boost Russia's public spending on science to more than 400 billion rubles (approx £8 billion) by 2010, which is twice this year's spending. Such international commitments to the funding of science will certainly impair the UK's ability to compete with other countries, economically and technologically.


  The Russell Group of Universities wishes to highlight the possible impact of a £80 million deficit for STFC in the following three areas:

    —  Increasing vulnerability of physics departments: physics is already recognised as a strategically important and vulnerable subject. One of the significant funding streams for physics departments is grants from STFC. Therefore, any reduction in grant funding from STFC would have a negative impact on the financial planning of departments and the robustness of their future financial stability.

    —  Impact of grant cuts: we understand that a number of factors have contributed to the STFC's projected funding deficit but funding of grants should not be seen by STFC as a soft target to resolve the problem. Amongst other consequences, this would lead to a greatly demoralised staff and risk the medium and long-term health of physics in the UK.

    —  Utilisation of investment in leading facilities: significant long-term funding has been invested in ensuring that the UK has internationally leading facilities in recognition of the strategic importance of doing so. STFC grants and funded activity are essential to ensure that the best use is made of these facilities and the significant investment already made by the UK government in this area.


    —  In many Russell Group universities, STFC funding accounts for 30% and upwards of departmental budgets in a range of subject areas such as physics, astronomy and applied mathematics. In some highly-focussed research departments, STFC funding accounts for over 80% of grant income.

    —  At some of these universities, a cut in the range of 25-30% would equate to many millions of pounds. In addition to project and facilities funding, STFC funds supports hundreds of academic staff, postdoctoral researchers and PhD studentships. Universities need a period of adjustment where a future trajectory of existing programmes could be modified and future programmes re-worked.

    —  Russell Group universities have projected that departmental research income would be severely hit, projects would be halted and support staff would be disproportionately cut. PhD student recruitment would be hard hit due to lack of fellowships available and undergraduate admissions into physics would suffer. Our main concerns regarding impact lie in the following four areas:

    —  Project funding: as STFC has placed great emphasis on ensuring the viability of projects, a 25-40% cut would make these projects no longer feasible, requiring the same approximate 25-40% of the projects be cut completely.

    —  Returns to international commitments: there is a strong argument to be made for protecting existing commitments in this area as cuts would place at risk the UK global position that it has worked long to establish. In addition, as returns on international subscriptions, such as CERN, ESA & ESO, are materialising, the timing of these cuts are particularly problematic. The UK's ability to participate in and deliver on international commitments would also be called into question. In addition, these cuts will make it increasingly hard to recruit global talent.

    —  Undergraduates into physics: as Astronomy or Particle Physics are the two of the strongest attractors of undergraduates into the field, cuts from the STFC would drastically affect recruitment from the undergraduate level, further eroding the number of home-grown physicists.

    —  Knock-on effects: funding cuts from STFC will have knock-on effects of increasing the competition and demand for funding from other councils and funding sources. As an example of additional effects of these cuts, the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh have noted that any cuts will have a particularly damaging effect on their participation in Scottish Universities Physics Alliance II, part of Scottish research pooling. A large part of the SUPA-II bid was a collaborative bid with STFC was to begin development work on the International Linear Collider. If this funding collapses, it could lose both £3 million investment from STFC and very large future grants.

January 2008

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