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.

 

Yours faithfully

 

 

Professor Peter Main

Director, Education and Science

 

 

The process for deciding where to make cuts in SET spending;

 

1. There are three levels at which the decisions about where to make cuts in SET spend are made:

 

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 STFC during the CSR07 allocation process, the RCUK Review of UK Physics recommended that the DGSR would benefit from the advice of an independent advisory group during future CSR allocation processes to ensure there are no unintended consequences of allocations and there is accountability to the scientific community[1]. This recommendation arose as it was considered that the burden and pressure of making such difficult discussions regarding the allocations could be eased with input from the wider scientific community. In the Institute's view, this is unlikely to lead to major changes in the allocation of funds, but we support the recommendation nonetheless which has been accepted as it will help improve the transparency of the arrangements. A number of national bodies, such as the Royal Society, have been selected for this purpose. However, room should also be made available for appropriate representation from learned societies, universities and individual academics. In addition, within departmental R&D budgets, cuts will be made at department and sub-departmental levels. The Institute is of the view that each department should retain its chief scientific advisor on its board to allow greater scrutiny and coordination of these cuts.

 

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 STFC prioritisation exercise to look at individual projects, which can distort the overall science strategy. It is noticeable, for example, that the long-term investment in future facilities has been heavily cut, which of course preserves more current research but at the expense of future capability. In addition, it would be desirable if there was more international membership of the peer review and advisory committees.

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.

 

6. The Institute, along with EPSRC, STFC, and the Royal Astronomical Society, commissioned Oxford Economics to conduct a study to demonstrate the economic impact of physics research and to illustrate some of the wider social impacts of physics research.

 

7. Oxford Economics used a case study approach which selected three topics (i.e. LCDs, satellite navigation, and MRI scanners) on the basis that UK-based physics research was proven to be critical to the development of the technology, and which benefitted the UK economy. The study focused on demonstrating achieved gross economic benefits to the UK on the basis of empirical evidence and stakeholder consultations, without consideration to the costs of providing that benefit.

 

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 UK, using a predominantly quantitative approach, is a very difficult exercise. The time taken between the completion of research and economic impact takes many years. There are difficulties with identifying and quantifying the full-range of social and public-policy benefits from curiosity-driven research. And even if that could be done, determining the contribution of curiosity-driven physics research is challenging, not least because many new discoveries are made by multi-disciplinary teams of scientists.

 

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 GPS to track their fleet of lorries, would know that their business would either not exist, or would operate in a different way, without curiosity-driven physics research going back over several decades?

 

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[2], 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 UK's economy and/or improved the quality of life of its people.

 

13. In terms of the allocation of QR, the approaches that HEFCE stated in its recent REF consultation are flawed. For instance, the methods proposed for assessing impact reveal a narrower interpretation of impact to be measured than those described by RCUK, for instance. The challenges posed by time lag and attribution are severe, to the extent that effectively and fairly judging the contribution of a given unit of assessment through the methods proposed is essentially impossible. In addition, there is a danger that the REF will be judging the 'impact' of a discipline rather than the quality of the research within a discipline.

 

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 nave 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 STEM disciplines. But a major impact that is often overlooked is the production of highly trained workers - people that are trained though curiosity-driven research are able to provide industry the capacity to exploit and build on the results of this broad base of research. Skilled workers are essential both in the industries where this knowledge is applied, and across the UK's economy.

 

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 counterproductive. Serendipitous discovery via curiosity-driven research has led to many technological step-changes that have revolutionised our lives today, for example, MRI scanners, GPS technology, etc. The prediction of the best prospects for future discovery and invention is notoriously difficult, hence it is essential for the UK to support a broad research base on the basis of excellence, rather than attempting to pick winners based on economic impact prediction.

 

18. The Institute is of the view that the REF is entirely the wrong vehicle for assessing impact and, while the requirement of RCUK grant applicants to consider the impact of their research is fine, it should not lead to an assessment of impact. It would be better if HEFCE and RCUK worked together to assess the impact of research in a coherent manner (i.e. HEFCE's is about the past and evidence-based to a certain extent, while RCUK's is about the future and based on conjecture) that recognises the difficulties of what is being requested and does not place a burden on researchers to create meaningless documentation.

 

 

The differential effect of cuts on demand-led and research institutions;

 

19. No comment.

 

 

The implications and effects of the announced STFC budget cuts;

 

20. The latest announcement from STFC following its recent prioritisation exercise translates to a significant cut in funding, in the region of 25-50%, for all areas of STFC science. This includes internationally leading, high-profile research areas in astronomy, astroparticle physics, nuclear physics and particle physics. These cuts will clearly impact on the UK's ability to effectively carry out the best science and maximise the benefit to the country. It also has the effect of causing significant international concern on the part of our close colleagues in the US and in Europe with whom we have close collaboration on major construction projects, hurting UK credibility as a sound international partner.

 

21. Whilst the Institute supported STFC's efforts to undertake its prioritisation exercise in a framework designed to focus on areas of highest priority, we believe that there has not been sufficient thought given to the overall balance between important research areas and to strategically important research. This is true in all areas over which STFC has stewardship, resulting in effectively no long-term prospects for particle physics and astronomy, no long-term planning for large facilities (e.g. future light sources) and a planning horizon that is especially bleak for astroparticle physics and nuclear physics. We could write several paragraphs on the implications for each one of these research areas, but will focus on nuclear physics.

 

22. The recently published EPSRC/STFC report on nuclear physics and nuclear engineering[3] clearly stated that support for UK nuclear physics research is markedly lower than competitor countries, and that: "...further funding cuts could be terminal". STFC's prioritisation exercise has resulted in disproportionately large cuts to nuclear physics. Using STFC's own figures, there will be a reduction of 12m in nuclear physics funding on a 30m spend over the next five years, out of a total spend of 2.4bn over the same period. In addition, only one out of four international nuclear physics projects which the UK is involved in (i.e. NuSTAR) will continue to be funded.

 

23. The cuts in nuclear physics amount to a 29% reduction in the current STFC nuclear physics budget. As very little of the nuclear physics budget is spent on equipment, this will lead to a corresponding reduction in the number of nuclear physicists working in UK university physics departments. STFC has justified its lack of strategic stewardship by arguing that cuts in one project will not affect other projects and that if one project survives, nuclear physics research will remain viable. This statement is simplistic and ignores the overall reduction in staffing which will reduce the UK's research in nuclear physics to a level which is insignificant in international terms and which will leave the academic community at a size which lacks critical mass and is too small to engage in significant new applied work.

 

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[4]; 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 STFC, is an area that private enterprise cannot fund significantly, thus it is incumbent on the government to provide appropriate support. In terms of attracting and retaining R&D intensive companies, the UK must keep pace with European and global competitors and the attractiveness of the R&D 'environment' is highly sensitive to damage. As such, in broad terms, within industry, the short-term impacts of STFC's cuts to basic research will be limited, though the UK's international reputation as 'the place to do R&D' may well be damaged. However, in the medium- to long- term, it will be both the quality and abilities of graduates/academics and also the decline in local knowledge stock, which may have a substantial detrimental effect on the UK's ability to be a leading R&D nation.

 

 

The scope of the STFC review announced on 16 December and currently underway;

 

26. The Institute understands that Lord Drayson's review of STFC will report by the end of February 2010 and will offer some solutions to address the financial and structural tensions that the research council is facing.

 

27. The Institute has submitted its response to inform the review[5]; 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 GDP or NNI should be fully compensated by central government.

 

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, STFC should retain responsibility for CERN and ESO, and EPSRC should take on responsibility for ESRF and ILL.

 

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. STFC. Moving these research areas to EPSRC, for instance, would be undesirable as they are unsuited to EPSRC's current funding mechanisms.

 

A national research laboratory should be established on multiple sites to manage the national facilities which are currently within STFC's portfolio, such as the Diamond Light Source, ISIS, the Central Laser Facility and the National Centre for Electron Microscopy and Surface Analysis. These facilities are national assets available for both public and private sector users, and a clear focus is required on optimising their value to the UK.

 

 

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 England research budget and departmental research budgets;

 

28. According to RCUK, the science budget is administered by BIS and, at the request of HM Treasury, it is ring-fenced over the period of a CSR, i.e. it can only be spent on designated areas of scientific R&D and cannot be spent on other areas of the department's remit.

 

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[6]. 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.

 

 

 

Whether the 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 (STEM) graduates to achieve its overall ambitions for UK science and innovation;

 

32. The government has been taking the issue of the supply of STEM graduates seriously, and the Institute has responded to a number of (former DIUS) consultations that have explored issues including future demand, and the use of incentives to universities or employers to encourage more young people to study STEM[7]. In addition, as set out in the next steps document, the number of students studying A-level physics, chemistry and mathematics have increased, although the numbers for physics are still too low. However, we are pleased that DCSF is funding the Institute's Stimulating Physics Network project[8], which aims to improve the uptake of A-level physics.

 

33. However, 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 STEM area. Physics numbers, for example, have stayed flat over this period, while subjects such as drama and media studies have soared. It is hard to understand a higher education market that is driven solely by the choices of students who have little or no information about career prospects and employers' needs. Therefore, if this market is to be viable, there is an urgent need for the provision of independent, comprehensive information to young people and their families regarding the range of options available to STEM graduates, the quality of such career options, the demand for such graduates by employers and the potential financial rewards.

 

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 STEM subjects remains the shortage of well-qualified teachers, particularly in physics, where we estimate a net loss of around 250 teachers per year from an already depleted workforce. Targets for recruitment across all sciences are now being met, in line with the next steps document, but the numbers in physics are still too small.

 

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[9], or retraining existing biology teachers to teach physics, the Science Additional Specialism Programme[10]. 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 STEM students.

 

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[11], 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.

 

 

 

 



[1] RCUK Review of UK Physics; http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/review/physics/default.htm

[2] IOP Case Studies; http://www.iop.org/activity/policy/Publications/Case%20Studies/page_29803.html

[3] Review of nuclear physics and nuclear engineering; http://www.stfc.ac.uk/SciProg/NP/NPEngReview.aspx

[4] The Relationship between Public Funded Basic Research and Economic Performance. Report prepared by Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, for HM Treasury, 1996.

[5] IOP recommendations to the review of STFC; http://www.iop.org/News/news_38827.html

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/6647757/Cancer-and-dementia-research-funding-could-be-spent-on-free-social-care-says-Andy-Burnham.html

[7] IOP response to Analysis on Demand for STEM Skills: http://www.iop.org/activity/policy/Consultations/Higher_Education/file_31256.pdf

[8] Stimulating Physics Network; http://www.stimulatingphysics.org/overview.htm

[9] Physics Enhancement Project; http://www.iop.org/activity/education/Teaching_Resources/Teaching%20Advanced%20Physics/page_6013.html

[10] Science Additional Specialism Programme; http://www.iop.org/activity/education/Teacher_Support/sasp/page_33328.html

[11] Study of the finances of physics departments in English universities;http://www.iop.org/activity/policy/Publications/file_21216.pdf