Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Physics (FC 52)
The Institute of Physics is a scientific charity devoted to increasing the practice, understanding and application of physics. It has a worldwide membership of over 36,000 and is a leading communicator of physics-related science to all audiences, from specialists through to government and the general public. Its publishing company, IOP Publishing, is a world leader in scientific publishing and the electronic dissemination of physics.
The Institute is pleased to submit its views to inform the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's inquiry, 'The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research'. The response was prepared with input from the Institute's membership. The attached annex details our response to the questions listed in the call for evidence.
If you need any further information on the points raised, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Professor Peter Main
Director, Education and Science
The process for deciding where to make cuts in SET spending;
· at HM Treasury level, where overall departmental budgets are set, including the total amount available for research;
· at government departmental level, where R&D budgets and allocations of budgets to the various spending bodies (i.e. research councils, etc.) are set; and
· at research council and equivalent levels, where the distribution of resources to projects, facilities and grants is made.
2. On the first, it is important that a strong case is made for the Science Budget, and this would be better made if the Minister for Science and Innovation had full control over the Science Budget as a separate submission, rather than being a component of the budget of a much larger department with a wide range of responsibilities.
3. On the second, and
in light of the difficulties faced by
4. On the third, it
is important that unavoidable cuts are made in line with a well-defined science
strategy for each research field. There is a tendency evident in the recent
What evidence there is on the feasibility or effectiveness of estimating the economic impact of research, both from a historical perspective (for QR funding) and looking to the future (for Research Council grants);
5. The Institute has direct evidence of the problems of attempting to quantify the economic impact of research from a historical perspective.
The Institute, along with EPSRC,
Economics used a case study
approach which selected three topics (i.e. LCDs, satellite navigation, and
8. Some of the immediate limitations of this approach were that the study could only provide an illustration of the potential applications and benefits arising from the underlying physics research; the benefits could not be grossed-up to estimate the impact on the whole of physics research as the topics were not fully representative of the wide range of physics research; the demonstrated benefits would be purely indicative; and the strategic and policy benefits of physics research could not be quantified.
9. From the Institute's
experience, estimating the historical impacts of research to the
10. It is also the very nature of physics research itself that makes demonstrating impact so challenging. Most economic impact assessments will focus on a particular sector of an economy (e.g. film, space, manufacturing, tourism and retail) that can be clearly defined or classified and then measured, either directly using official statistical sources such as the ONS, or by surveying individuals or businesses.
11. But physics is different. There is no 'physics'
industry, only 'physics-using' industries. And even those physics-using
industries may not even realise that curiosity-driven physics research
underpins their business. This makes the often-used survey approach to measure
economic impact difficult. For example, how many businesses selling flat-screen
TVs, or logistics companies using
12. On the other hand,
qualitative approaches are more straightforward, but limited, as they mainly
highlight the social impacts of research. Once again, the Institute has direct
experience of this. The Institute recently published a series of short case studies,
which showcase the vital contribution that curiosity-driven
physics research has made to a number of major technological developments,
which in turn have led to significant contributions to the
In terms of the allocation of QR, the approaches that HEFCE stated in its
14. On the issue of time lags, research takes time to filter through but it makes no sense at all to be assessing the publications of one set of people and the research impact of another set of people who might have been in the same unit 10-15 years earlier. It would be a logistical nightmare and, what is more, the results would be meaningless as they would bear little relevance to the current situation. Furthermore, the hit and miss nature of research, which has to be seen as a global effort in this respect, will often mean that successful exploitation in the past will be no guide to the future.
15. In addition, there are problems with the HEFCE's idea of providing case studies, which represent a naïve view of how research impacts on the environment, particularly research that is not immediately of direct impact to the economy. Usually, there is a body of work, which progresses by collaboration between groups and the work enters the knowledge base. Of course, there are major steps forward, but for the most part, it is very difficult to point to a particular research unit that might have responsibility. This will be particularly true for major international collaborations.
16. Overall, the
societal impacts of physics research are limitless, and no doubt the same
applies to other
17. In terms of assessing the impact of research looking forward,
the Institute is of the view that the current practice of requesting academics
to predict the economic impact of their work also has limitations, and could be
discovery via curiosity-driven research has led to many technological
step-changes that have revolutionised our lives today, for example,
18. The Institute is of the view that the
The differential effect of cuts on demand-led and research institutions;
19. No comment.
The implications and
effects of the announced
The latest announcement from
21. Whilst the Institute supported
The recently published EPSRC/
23. The cuts in nuclear physics amount to a 29% reduction in the
24. Nuclear physics research is an important area of science, and has the potential for further development. Its contribution to the wider economy is evident in the number of trained scientists it produces. In the past five years, it has produced 109 PhD graduates. Of the 67 who have moved on to using their specific nuclear skills in industry, 24 of these have been employed directly in nuclear power companies and nine in healthcare. A further five scientists with postdoctoral academic experience were hired by the nuclear industry, and one into healthcare in the same period. With the prospect of a lack of specialist skills required for new nuclear power stations, safety inspectorates and healthcare, full consideration needs to be given to the strategic importance of nuclear physics in a balanced research portfolio.
25. In addition, it should never be thought that industry will be
unaffected by cuts to basic research. The benefits of publicly funded basic research
to the broader economy, and specifically its central importance to industry
have been well documented;
the benefits accrue through both the creation of a pool of knowledge, and also
through the supply of people trained at the cutting edge of research to enable
the national economy to absorb and develop this knowledge. Long-term basic
research, such as the science funded by
The scope of the
The Institute understands that Lord Drayson's review of
27. The Institute has submitted its response to inform the review; the following are the key recommendations:
· Changes in the level
of subscriptions to international facilities over which research councils have
no control should not impact on the funding available for research. Changes due
to exchange rate fluctuations, inflation compensation or movements in
· Responsibility for UK
participation in international facilities should lie with the research council
which makes predominant use of that facility, and where necessary the
subscription should be transferred into its budget. As an illustration,
· Exploitation grants
for astronomy, nuclear physics, and particle physics research should reside within
the same research council that pays the international subscriptions for
these areas, i.e.
· A national research
laboratory should be established on multiple sites to manage the national
facilities which are currently within
The operation and
definition of the science budget ring-fence, and consideration of whether there
should be a similar ring-fence for the Higher Education Funding Council for
28. According to RCUK, the science budget is administered by
29. However, it wasn't that long ago that the former DTI cut £68m from the research councils' budgets due to overspend on other areas within the DTI. We are reassured that this was a one-off incident; it is important that the ring-fence is watertight as it provides continuity and confidence in science investment allowing researchers to commit to long-term projects. It is also an outward sign that science holds a central, crucial role within government.
30. A ring-fence around research council budgets is not enough, as there must also be scrutiny of what is regarded as being within this ring-fence. In recent years there have been increases in the ring-fenced science budget, but within this, there have decreases in the funding of curiosity-driven research and increases in targeted programmes/business-facing research.
31. Within department R&D funding the case is less clear cut, although in a situation that is remarkably similar to the DTI raid mentioned previously, one of the departmental R&D budgets that is currently ring-fenced, i.e. DH, was recently subject to a £60m raid. In many government departments, the demands on departmental R&D will necessarily be driven by both short- and long-term government policy, and a ring-fence may not be suitable to keep pace with this. However, it is clear that there needs to be more transparency and scrutiny of R&D spending within both civil departments and MOD. Over the past five years there have been significant cuts in these R&D budgets, cuts which, as they often take place at sub-departmental level, can happen 'under the radar'. A nominal ring-fencing of departmental R&D may be beneficial in aiding scrutiny of these funding decisions.
Government is achieving the objectives it set out in the 'Science and
innovation investment framework 2004-2014: next steps', including, for
example, making progress on the supply
of high quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics (
32. The government has been
taking the issue of the supply of
this effort is being countered by the side-effects of the government's widening
participation policy, particularly the 50% target for participation in higher
education. Within the last decade,
there has been a major expansion of university places; very few of these have
been in the
34. Alternatively, some adjustment of the market, to recognise that some subjects are more important than others, might be appropriate.
35. One of the largest barriers for
students wanting to pursue
36. The DfES/DCSF/TDA has set up a number of schemes to increase the number of physics specialist teachers. Although some of these do involve attracting physics graduates from other professions, the two principal ones involve providing either a knowledge booster course preceding the PGCE training, the Physics Enhancement Programme, or retraining existing biology teachers to teach physics, the Science Additional Specialism Programme. The Institute is heavily involved in both these programmes. Such initiatives appear to be the only plausible route to remedying the shortage of physics teachers.
Whether the extra student support, which the Government announced on 20 July 2009 for 10,000 higher education places, delivered students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses;
37. As far as the Institute is aware, very few physics departments took up the offer, partly because the additional places were not fully funded.
The effect of HEFCE
cuts on the 'unit of funding' for
38. It is too early to say what impacts the cuts in HEFCE's budget for 2010-11 will have, but suffice to say that any impact on the unit of resource for teaching will be a concern, especially if HEFCE decides to cut the additional funding for very high-cost subjects of strategic national importance, such as physics.
39. Any cuts to this now recurrent targeted allocation (i.e. £25m from 2009-10 following an initial allocation of £75m from 2007-08 over three years), which compensates for the shortfall in the unit of resource that we identified at around 20% in a detailed financial study, could affect the viability of physics departments (with the potential threat of closure for the smaller ones), many of which, for the first time in over a decade, are breaking even.
 RCUK Review of UK Physics; http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/review/physics/default.htm
 IOP Case Studies; http://www.iop.org/activity/policy/Publications/Case%20Studies/page_29803.html
 Review of nuclear physics and nuclear engineering; http://www.stfc.ac.uk/SciProg/NP/NPEngReview.aspx
Relationship between Public Funded Basic Research and Economic
Performance. Report prepared by Science
Policy Research Unit,
recommendations to the review of
 IOP response
to Analysis on Demand for
 Stimulating Physics Network; http://www.stimulatingphysics.org/overview.htm
 Physics Enhancement Project; http://www.iop.org/activity/education/Teaching_Resources/Teaching%20Advanced%20Physics/page_6013.html
 Science Additional Specialism Programme; http://www.iop.org/activity/education/Teacher_Support/sasp/page_33328.html
 Study of the finances of physics departments in English universities;http://www.iop.org/activity/policy/Publications/file_21216.pdf