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

Memorandum 19

Submission from Universities UK


  Prior to the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee's session on the science budget allocations on 21st January I am writing to inform you of Universities UK's ongoing concern over the funding of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

  UUK have welcomed the headline investment for science announced in the recent Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). Indeed, we are encouraged by the government's strong commitment to science and innovation and the strategic approach taken within the 10-year science and innovation framework. Much of the additional funding provided in this and previous spending reviews has been provided to meet more of the full economic costs of projects undertaken in universities. UUK are strong supporters of this agenda and believe that this commitment will help secure a strong and sustainable research base in universities.

  The headline investment for STFC in the 2007 CSR was 14%. UUK understand, however, that in reality this will represent a significant reduction in funding over this spending period due to a number of factors. Notably for universities, as part of the STFC delivery plan this will lead to a 25% reduction in research grant funding.

  We do, of course, appreciate that the circumstances that have led to this situation are complex, and compounded by the fact that that the STFC was only created in April this year. However, the impact of the proposed cuts will be significant, particularly in university physics departments. We have taken informal soundings of UUK members on the potential impact of scaling back of STFC funding over the current CSR period. We will be undertaking further analysis of the information provided, and would be happy to share this with the committee, but the headline messages on the impact of a 25% cut in grant funding are:

    —  There would be a significant loss of staff at all levels, impacting on the health of physics departments and research environment.

    —  Cuts would place at risk the successful outcome of work where the UK already has an established lead. UK institutions would therefore lose leadership in world-leading projects and lose international collaborative partners.

    —  Recruitment and retention of high-calibre researchers of international standing will be much harder.

    —  Collaboration at regional and national levels (for example, research pooling in Scotland) would be damaged. Collaboration provides a solution to many of the concerns over future capacity in physics. Collaborative initiatives designed to sustain physics provision following a number of high profile closures, supported by the funding councils and others, have the potential to be undermined by the STFC cuts.

    —  Institutional investment in staff and equipment would not be fully exploited and facilities would become run-down.

    —  Any negative publicity about the viability of Physics departments would also have knock on effect on student recruitment into degree programmes.

    —  Any reduction could also have potentially negative effects on the regional economy, for example impacting on the supply chain for instrumentation.

    —  There will also be a considerable impact in parts of Chemistry, Biology, and Engineering.

  It is clear that this situation was not intended, but given its seriousness it is crucial that it can be resolved in a way that does not damage the viability of physics departments in UK universities, many of which are already in a fragile financial position.

  We welcome the government's announcement of a review of physics, to be chaired by Professor Bill Wakeham. UUK would be supportive of suspending the STFC delivery plan until Professor Wakeham has reported. In the interim it will be important that there is a flexibility of approach and continued and open dialogue between STFC and DIUS to avoid any irreversible damage before recommendations arising from the Wakeham review can be taken forward. At the very least, funding should be found to provide a sensible period for adjustment before any abrupt decisions have to be taken.

January 2008

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