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


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council


  The Spending Review 2000 outcome was the best news for UK science for many years, but will only deliver its intended impact if increases in funding can be sustained over the long term.

  The Government has recognised, through its Science Budget allocations, the power of fundamental physics to drive the IT (e-science) agenda, the importance of European collaboration and the economic value of advanced technology. This was far-sighted and will deliver important dividends over the medium to long term.

  The increase in postgraduate student stipends is welcome but does not go far enough to enhance the status of careers in research.

  The crisis in school physics teaching is a grave threat to physics research and to future prosperity and must be addressed, as a matter of urgency, across Government.

The 1993 White Paper

  1.  PPARC submitted a memorandum to the Committee on the impact of the 1993 White Paper in June 2000. Our general view then, which we re-assert now, was that overall the impact of that White Paper had been positive.

Funding for Science and Technology

  2.  The Government's Spending Review announced in July 2000 (and detailed in the Science Budget Allocations in November 2000) was the best news for UK science for many decades. If this can be sustained over the longer term it will help to bring UK spending more into line with its international competitors. More importantly it will underpin future economic and social progress.

University Research Infrastructure

  3.  Equally important was the continued commitment to university research infrastructure announced, with the support of the Wellcome Trust, in the Scientific Research Investment Fund (SRIF), to continue the start made by the Joint Infrastructure Fund. But the scientific community will need to work closely with university vice-chancellors to ensure that it is targeted at regenerating infrastructure in areas of highest scientific priority. Furthermore, investment in research infrastructure, through routes such as JIF or SRIF must be maintained over the long term if the research infrastructure is not to decay back to the appalling state it had reached before the JIF.

The 2000 White Paper

  4.  The 2000 Science and Innovation White Paper (Cm 4814) contained a number of useful measures to improve the economic exploitation of the UK science and technology base. The recognition of the economic importance of physics in the 21st century was welcome, if overdue.

Physics Teaching

  5.  The recruitment and retention of specialist science teachers (recognised in the White Paper) remains a critical issue. The entry to physics PGCE courses has fallen from 568 in 1993 to 205 by September 2000. The teaching of physics by generalist science teachers (mainly not graduate physicists) is unsatisfactory. School physics is the basis for many areas of economic and academic activity from academic astrophysical research to electronic engineering. There is a crisis in physics training. The OST commissioned report on "International Perceptions of UK Physics and Astronomy" is explicit in this respect:

    *"Attracting a diverse and highly qualified student population must start at the primary and secondary school levels. One of the most worrying statistics brought to the attention of the Panel is the recent drastic decline in the number of physicists entering post-graduate teacher training courses. This may reflect the poor salaries and increasing administrative loads in the teaching profession, in particular in state schools. If so, urgent action is required. The importance of maintaining the supply of young, enthusiastic and well-qualified teachers cannot be underestimated."

  6.  It is not clear whether all parts of government have sufficiently grasped the full significance of this. Recently announced incentives to teachers, and the DfEE Science Year—due to start this September are worthy, but unlikely to resolve the fundamental issues affecting specialist science teaching.[28]

  7.  We suggest that the Committee might address, as a matter of urgency, the crisis facing specialist science teaching in the UK. If it is not addressed successfully by government, the new DTI/OST investments in science funding will not be able to yield their full return in future years. We note that the House of Lords S&T Committee are currently looking at science in schools. We will look with interest at its findings.

November Science Budget Allocations

  8.  The Science Budget allocations announced in November were unequivocally goods news for PPARC's research programmes, though PPARC still faces some hard choices.

  9.  Of particular importance to PPARC were:

    (a)  E-Science—the Government has recognised the role of modern fundamental physics (e-science) in driving the IT agenda, in particular computational grids, which will be driven by particle physicists, using the CERN Large Hadron Collider, and astronomers with access to increasingly powerful telescopes (ground and space based). Initially developed for research purposes, computational grid technologies will revolutionise the present world wide web as profoundly as the Web transformed the previous inefficient internet operating systems. The techniques developed will also find application in other scientific areas involving enormous quantities of data such as genomics, and environmental monitoring and climate change research. The Government has allocated £98 million over three years under this heading of which £26 million was allocated to PPARC.

    (b)  European Astronomy—the Government has recognised that, as in particle physics and space science, UK and European science will compete effectively in the world only if the UK is part of a strong European bloc. PPARC has received an additional £10 million per year to allow the UK to joint the European Southern Observatory (ESO). This will ensure that UK astronomers are actively involved in global scale preparations for the next generation of astronomy facilities, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the very large (~50m) optical/infrared telescopes now undergoing conceptual studies. In addition, ESO membership will give UK astronomers access to a suite of four world-class 8-meter ground-based telescopes, as well as other state-of-the art facilities. But it will also require PPARC to make some hard decisions in the coming months in rationalising its existing commitments to existing, older, ground based facilities.

    (c)  Student Stipends—the increase announced in postgraduate student stipends is welcome, but does not go far enough. PPARC has already agreed to speed up the rate of increase. Even then the country will still be seriously undervaluing some of its cleverest talent. Many high-quality students are prepared to work for less than an economic rate because of their interest and commitment to the subject. Increasing student indebtedness and attractive alternative graduate employment prospects also put the future supply of good physicists at risk. We would like to see postgraduate student stipends further increased to compete with other graduate options and to ensure that research is perceived as a worthwhile and rewarding professions, valued by society.

    (d)  Basic Technology and Faraday Partnerships—research in astronomy, space and particle physics has always depended on the development of new technology, ever since Galileo invented the telescope. Over the last century that technology has become increasingly complex and sophisticated and has generated applications from cancer treatment to drug design and satellite communications and control. To facilitate future collaboration with industry, PPARC recently led a review of its future needs for advanced technology and extended this, with the other research councils to cover all areas of research as part of the OST's Foresight Activity (copies enclosed)[29]. The Government's announcement of a cross-Council fund for basic technology (£44m over three years) is therefore welcome and timely.

  PPARC expects its scientific community to benefit from this fund, and has been pleased to join the DTI Faraday Partnership Scheme, for which DTI has announced plans for further expansion. This will enable PPARC scientists and engineers to develop new technology more effectively in collaboration with UK industry and scientists in other disciplines. PPARC expects to fund one or two Faraday Partnerships in the coming year.

17 January 2001

28   Extract from 3.3 of the International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy published by the Institute of Physics May 2000. Back

29   Not printed. Back

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