Spending Review 2010 - HC 618Written evidence submitted by Professor Neil Spooner (SR 04)

I am head of the experimental particle physics and particle astrophysics group at the University of Sheffield, about 45 scientists. There have unfortunately developed many problems with UK science. These stem from a combination of reduced funding, an anti “big society” top-down over management, and detrimental changes to the operational structures introduced by the previous government.

Rather than cover the many issues involved I want to highlight two points that I think illustrate a particular harm that is being done and that will impact on the UK’s wealth generating capacity in the future. These are personal comments, but I believe widely held, obviously biased to my particular experience in University experimental physics.

(1)experimental physics is a hard, technology-creating and mathematics-based endeavour that underpins big areas of science and engineering. It plays a vital role to improving the knowledge base of the UK, needed if we are to compete with the vast investments being made elsewhere in hard science, particularly in Asia. A key result of the exceptional cuts made to University-based research grants over the last several years, is that we are no longer able to offer the depth and breadth of practical, experimental and technological training to undergraduate students through their 3rd and 4th year research project work that was possible even three years ago. There is simply no longer the number of post-doctoral or PhD students funded on research around to provide the essential day-to-day expertise necessary, nor the levels of stat-of the-art equipment. So whilst the research capacity itself is clearly reduced by lower funding, it is in fact the knock-on effect in our capacity to provide world-class training in high technology to bright young people that worries me more. Without growing these high-end skills we will see the UK’s knowledge-base decline rapidly relative to others. Connected with this is an over-zealous trend to concentrate research, particular R&D, in national laboratories or gateway centres. This is also pulling research resources away from University departments where such work can often be done more economically but more importantly where it can simultaneously be used to train youngsters at the cutting edge; and

(2)partly linked to this is the, frankly absurd, structure of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), constructed from the old PPARC and CCLRC with an in-built conflict of interest such that the body has the remit both to distribute science funding to Universities but also to itself. There are countless examples now where funding better spent in Universities, again with their added training capabilities and expertise, finds its way instead to STFC outfits without proper transparency of peer review. One can argue that Universities should have the first call on research funds because, as historically evidenced, they provide the most dynamic and economic environment, but again it is arguably more important not to forget the positive impact on training that research funding to Universities brings. For the sake of transparency for the tax payer and value for money, the dual role of STFC acting as both an awarder of tax funds for research and a receiver in competition with University departments must be ended.

21 March 2011

Prepared 7th November 2011