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


Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Physics

  The Institute of Physics is an international learned society, publisher and professional body for physics. With over 30,000 members it looks after the interests of professional physicists and promotes physics education and understanding to all

  I would like to take this opportunity to raise two issues of concern to the Institute which do not relate directly to the questions asked. I would be most grateful if you could bring these concerns to the attention of the Committee.

  First, the questions asked concentrate particularly on the activities of the Office of Science and Technology (OST) following the White Paper. However, the White Paper also considered science funded via the Ministry of Defence and the Civil Departments of State. In recent years such funding has fallen significantly while the Science Budget of the OST has received a modest increase. The Institute recommends that the Committee pay particular attention to support of science across government, not just that supported by the OST, in the years after the White Paper.

  Second, national understanding of the process of research, development and innovation, and the concept of a global economy, has moved forward since the White Paper. A strong research base needs strong public support, combined with other factors, such as a vibrant higher education sector, liberal free-markets, appropriate regulation and a tax system attractive to inward investment. Scientific innovation is more complex than the linear model, by which local discovery leads through a series of linear steps to local industrial products. Nations will inevitably see local discoveries developed overseas, and conversely must maintain receptivity to foreign innovations and discoveries. A narrow focus on the importance of UK science for UK industry is liable to miss many of the key benefits of globalisation.

  Some of the points raised in the Institute's submission (eg innovation and the new synchrotron) relate to previous inquiries of the Select Committee. In particular the Institute submitted written evidence to the inquiry into Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation (195-II Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence pp. 320-325. Session 1999-2000).

(1)  The annual publication of Forward Look to provide a clear and up-to-date statement of the Government's Strategy for science, engineering and technology (replacing the more limited annual review);

The Institute makes limited use of this publication, although it recognises that there will be other organisations in science policy, especially government departments, for whom it is more suited.

(2)  The creation of Technology Foresight (now Foresight), designed to "achieve a key culture change: better communication, interaction and mutual understanding between the scientific community, industry and Government Departments";

  The first Technology Foresight exercise had a negative impact on physics research. Its use to influence the Research Councils' funding policies was detrimental to basic science, as it steered worthy grant applications away from basic science funding in seeking to align Research Councils' priorities to Foresight. Foresight is more suited to guiding strategic development and applied work.

  However, Technology Foresight usefully raised the profile of Technology and established relationships between industry and academe. Although the process involved the wider community via surveys etc, the results of Technology Foresight were essentially only seen in the Research Councils, who were obliged to adopt selection mechanisms that were often inappropriate to basic research.

  It is too early to judge the second Foresight initiative, but it is hoped that it will have greater effect on R&D in industry.

(3)  The abolition of the Advisory Council on Science and Technology and its replacement with the Council for Science and Technology "to help ensure that the Government benefits from outside independent and expert advice when deciding on its own research spending priorities";

  The Council for Science and Technology (CST) has not yet achieved the visibility that had been hoped for when it was re-launched. Thus, its benefits have been difficult to judge. The Institute is of the view that the CST has an important role to play in informing and influencing policies on scientific issues, and hopes that in due course it can emulate the impact its predecessor bodies had on the scientific community.

  Predecessor bodies such as the Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACOST) were more influential and active, and regularly published reports on issues ranging from biotechnology to industry-academia links, which had an impact on the Government and on the science community. The CST has regrettably been slower in this area, although its report earlier this year on science teaching is to be commended.

(4)  A shifting of emphasis for technology transfer initiatives to place more importance on "the interchange of ideas, skills, know-how and knowledge between the science and engineering base and industry";

  It is not possible to make any judgements as to whether the changes in universities' and academics' attitudes to industry links are a direct result of the White Paper, or are the outcome of a continuing change in culture. However, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's (EPSRC) Faraday centres, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's (PPARC) PIPPS schemes (which encourage collaboration with industry), the ROPA funds, and various other initiatives have had positive effects within the physics community. ROPAs, in particular are awarded by the Research Councils for fundamental research linked to industry, further encouraging the community to be entrepreneurial and innovative.

  It is of concern that these schemes place the bulk of responsibility on the Research Councils, and they alone cannot deliver. The schemes need a continuing change in public attitudes to research and development and greater manpower to flourish.

  Efforts to bring academic science and industry closer are to be encouraged, but have been less effective in the area of physics because of a decline in industrial research and development in the physics-based industries. For instance, the UK R&D Scoreboard 1999 shows that last year UK industrial R&D in the pharmaceutical sector increased by 11 per cent and health research by 65 per cent, but research in the following physics based areas decreased significantly:

Electronic and Electrical —16 per cent
IT Hardware—21 per cent
Media and Photography—5 per cent
Telecommunications—16 per cent

  The United Kingdom cannot afford to detach itself from such a broad swathe of technology if it is to have a modern forward moving economy.

(5)  Programmes to improve access for small and medium-sized enterprises to innovation support programmes;

  The House of Commons recently concluded that the UK's relatively poor science record in innovation in engineering and the physical sciences is not the result of a weakness in the science base. The UK is strong in its physics research (a point supported by an International Panel of physicists who recently undertook a review of UK physics [1]) and there are more innovative ideas than are taken up and exploited by industry. Innovative science needs to be supported, and industry, in particular the small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), need to shoulder some of that responsibility and offer relevant training/employment opportunities to science based PhDs.

  Programmes such as SMART and Business Links have not had the intended impact. SMART has not been a good match to the requirements of most technological SMEs. Business Links was under-resourced and had inadequate business models, and its structures were difficult to follow. It has been replaced by the Small Business Service (SBS), which appears equally too complex to encourage use by companies.

(6)  The reorganisation of the Research Councils with modified management structures and new mission statements which made more explicit their commitments to wealth creation and the quality of life;

  The research funded by the Research Councils is, rightly, of a long-term nature, and it is extremely difficult to measure the economic impact of research. Importantly, much of the impact of research undertaken in the period since 1993 is still to be realised. It is, therefore, too early to comment on whether the reorganisation of the Research Councils has had any major impact on wealth creation and quality of life.

  The Institute supports the need to improve the application of science to wealth creation and quality of life, but questions whether the science and technology strategy by itself can offer a route for wealth creation and quality of life. Following the White Paper, competitiveness and innovation have been superimposed on wealth creation and quality of life. Not all the gains from science and technology can be measured in these materialistic and short-term goals. The invaluable contribution made by science to the understanding of ourselves and the universe needs to be taken into greater consideration.

  Research funding should be allocated on the basis of the best science, the best people and the most imaginative proposals. The Institute is firmly of the view that a funding policy based on this premise serves the nation well in terms of wealth creation and quality of life.

  An International Review of UK physics, concluded that the quality of research in EPSRC managed programmes is lower than research funded in responsive mode [1]. While programmes to encourage research in specific areas will be required, the judgements on what is funded should be done by responsive mode methods.

  The Institute is not in a position to comment on the effect modified management structures within the Research Councils have had on their overall operation. However, in the area of physics the different policies and practices of the Research Councils are confusing and, in EPSRC at least, has left the community feeling distant and uninvolved.

  The White Paper proposed a structure with six Research Councils. In the years after the implementation of the White Paper a seventh Research Council, CLRC, was created with a funding basis quite different from the other six Research Councils. The Institute is concerned that the financing mechanism operated by the CLRC is not the most effective use of resources nor match to other Research Council priorities. In addition, the Institute is concerned that the process by which the location of the new synchrotron facility was decided and announced has damaged relations in the community and public perceptions of the decision making process. The Institute trusts that the role and operation of the CLRC will receive the Committee's attention, in this inquiry.

(7)  The creation of the post of the Director General of the Research Councils and the absorption of the functions of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils into the Office of Science and Technology.

  The Institute feels that the Director General of the Research Councils (DGRC) could benefit from a more open advisory system.

  The Institute is of the view that the DGRC would be ideally located in the Office of Science & Technology (OST), within the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). As originally recommended by the White Paper, the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) should be wholly located in the Cabinet Office, where the CSA can have greater authority to influence independently scientific issues. The placement of the CSA within the DTI has not been beneficial to science, as it has placed restrictions on the CSA when suggesting science and technology policy across government.

(8)  The launch of a new campaign to spread understanding of science among school children and the public.

  The relationship between science and society requires three communities—scientists, the Government and the wider public—to interact together on a basis of mutual understanding. Recent topics such as genetically modified foods have illustrated that there is still some way to go in this regard.

  The White Paper has had a positive effect on public appreciation as it gave formal credibility to the movement and authorised real expenditure from the science budget on activities. It complemented the Royal Society's work in the 1980s, which gave scientific respectability to public understanding. In the last 15 years there has been a sea change in attitude by the science community, especially in promoting physics to the public, which was a major part of the Government's strategy. However, while the Research Councils have each incorporated public understanding into their activities, to date they have failed to agree on a collaborative public understanding strategy. Nor has there been an effective imposition of the need for all those receiving public funds that they make their work publicly accessible. Schools and people need a clear understanding of what science means in terms of their present and future lives. With a shortage of teachers in the physical sciences, this does not bode well for the economic well being for the UK in the long-term. In 1993 there were 568 physics graduates entering teaching, and currently the number stands at around 220.

  The White Paper sees public understanding as one of the elements in the better provision of scientists and engineers to meet the country's needs. In section 7.2 it proposes changes in the education and training system to achieve this. However, seven years on, progress towards the anticipated goals has been limited. Neither the numbers continuing their studies in the physical sciences post-16, nor the proportion of girls in the post-16 cohort, have increased significantly. Entries to higher education to study the physical sciences and engineering suffer in quality and quantity. As observed by the International Review of UK physics [1], the British educational systems are excessively financially driven, and science comes off worse.

  Poor stipends offered to the physical sciences are deterring graduates from entering research careers, which will be detrimental to the future of British physics. Physics research continues to suffer from a low level of funding, and it is the task of the Government and the Research Councils to support young people in physics research and education and to provide them with the requisite funds.

  The White Paper proposed a one-year degree, the MRes, as an intermediate qualification at a level between a first degree and a PhD. This degree was ultimately limited in its scope, as it was reduced from a full-scale project to a pilot. The learned societies including the Institute of Physics did not support such a degree, as it was felt that the existing four year undergraduate degrees, e.g, the MPhys, already served as a solution of bridging the gap between traditional (BSc.) first degrees and PhDs.

(9)  Closing comments

  The Institute supports many of the premises and principles of the White Paper, but believes that it will be many years before we will realise the full effects of the recommendations of the White Paper. It is, therefore, still too early to say whether its resulting policies have had a positive effect on UK plc.

12 June 2000

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