Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memoranda submitted by Professor D H Saxon, FRSE, Head of Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow

  This is a personal submission indicating some areas of concern. As requested I give first some information on my involvement in Research Council Matters:

    PPARC  Council member (since 1997), Chair Public Understanding of Science Panel. (since 1997). (1992-95 covering transition from SERC) I was Chairman of the Particle Physics Committee and member of the UK delegation to CERN Council.

    CCLRC  Chair the Particle Physics Users Advisory Committee (since 1998).

    MRC  Member of the Scientific Advisory Group on Technology (1999). Judge for Discipline-hopping awards (2000).

Overseas involvements:

    CERN, Geneva  Member ad personam of Scientific Policy Committee (1993-98).

    DESY, Hamburg  Member, Physics Research Committee (1993-99).

Learned Societies

    Roy Soc Ed  Chair of Physics Sectional Committee and member of Meetings Committee. Chair sub-committee for PPARC-RSE Enterprise Fellowships.

    Inst of Physics  Member of Degree accreditation committee.

  The comments relate to my own experience. There are many good things to say, for example, the limited remit of PPARC has given it excellent focus. Here are some less good things.

  1.  The White Paper seemed to assume that Research was in good health and this will continue without long-term attention to human resources, infrastructure and facilities. The emphasis was on reorientation of goals and little thought was given to the measures needed to sustain quality of performance.

  2.  The White Paper failed totally on the issue of the managing, development and renewal of central facilities. As a result CCLRC had later to be set up, but under an underfunded and flawed scheme, (happily now being reviewed). There is no systematic approach to new capital facilities. There have been extreme difficulties throughout in approving and now in setting up the management for the new synchrotron radiation source. As a result the UK has (a) suffered loss of expertise in managing capital projects; (b) given itself no bargaining position in international negotiations; (c) failed properly to exploit those facilities we do have. The EPSRC ticket scheme has proved to be an inappropriate way to provide tensioning between big and small science. It has led to expensive facilities being underused, a high rejection rate on proposals, and would-be users being demoralised.

  3.  It failed to provide enough resourcing for infrastructure and capital, with an over-emphasis on short-term wins. The Research Councils and Funding Councils together have failed to deliver enough resource for University research infrastructure. There has been a progressive decline. The JIF mechanism has been a sparsely effective response with an emphasis on flagship projects rather than maintaining quality across the patch. It is highly inefficient with only a 12 per cent success rate, and extraordinarily burdensome to apply for and then to administer. It has hugely complex rules that pull in different directions.

  4.  It has not addressed the distortion caused by charities not paying indirect costs. This lack of transparency has forced Universities to divert resources out of, say, physical sciences into biomedical to make good the shortfalls and infrastructure costs needed to support charity-funded work.

  5.  It has neglected the future of human resources by failing to maintain competitive salaries for academics and postgraduate students. The position for students entering Ph Ds is now dire. They come in with massive debts and face several years of hand to mouth funding for the prospects of £18,000 at age 27 with a Ph D, as against £20,000 being offered to 21 year old B Sc's in the same field. The EPRSC proposal for training accounts will reduce student numbers, create destructive competition between institutes, and force Universities into seeking top-up funding from other sources to avoid slipping back, instead of getting on with the job.

  6.  On Public Understanding of Science there is good and bad to report. At the level of contact between enthusiastic researchers and young people there is much that is good. But there are three big problems (a) the very low level of public awareness on science content. Schemes from abroad have to be dumbed down for UK consumption. (b) The media give prominence to American scientists even where the work was done in the UK—partly from the need to sell programmes in the USA whereas the UK is a captive market, and partly from a larger supply and a greater degree of fluency amongst American scientists. This does not provide role models for British children. (c) Scientists and the media have failed to understand each other repeatedly. Progressively, important fields of, for example, environmental discussion have become politicised and discussion reduced to sloganising by pressure groups who are indifferent to whether their arguments are true or not. Consider nuclear power, dumping old oil rigs, or genetically modified foods.

22 May 2000

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