Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report
ORAL EVIDENCE - Part 1
Sir Ron Dearing, Chairman of the National Committee of Inquiry
into Higher Education, and Sir Ron Oxburgh, KBE, FRS, Rector of
Imperial College and a member of the National Committee, were
called in and examined.
1. Sir Ron, thank you very much for coming and for bringing with you a gentleman whom I shall try to refer to as the Rector, hoping my colleague to my left will not reply! Perhaps you would like to make some introductory remarks and introduce your colleagues?
(Sir Ron Dearing) You know Sir Ronald Oxburgh, the Rector,
and Mrs Shirley Trundle, Secretary of the Committee. Thank you
for inviting us so quickly before we have had an opportunity to
forget those things which we ought to have remembered in the report!
We established a Research Committee to guide us in our work and
our report reflects very much the work of that committee. It was
one of the approaches we consciously adopted, given that we had
only 14 or 15 months to do the job, to work through a number of
sub-groups. It had a further advantage of enabling us to involve
a wider basis of expertise. For example, we invited Professor
John Laver on the arts and humanities side to join that group
because we wanted to investigate in particular the case for increased
funding for the arts and for the humanities and how that was best
managed. Accordingly we brought in that particular expertise,
and so on. As to the report itself, as you will have seen, research
has its chapter and we have some very real concerns. We think,
and the report says so plainly, that the university sector has
done an excellent job in research and with very little increase
in resources over the last decade it has maintained and, I would
say, enhanced the reputation of United Kingdom research in academe.
By such measures of productivity as are possible it has done well,
increasing productivity, increasing effectiveness. In the studies
we made of major international awards, again the United Kingdom
did well. According to our information - and I disbelieve most
figures - between 1991 and 1996 we earned 12 per cent of international
medals and awards for which the prize was £200,000 or more.
But while there has been a very good record of achievement, there
is a much less satisfactory record of maintenance of the capability
to conduct research in the future. To an extent my own judgement
would be that we have achieved that very high level of performance
by eating into capital that was created in the past, in terms
of buildings, infrastructure, and research equipment. As a result,
we now have a worrying position. Surveys have been conducted on
behalf of the funding bodies and research councils and one to
which we refer shows a backlog in equipment funding of £474
million. We suggest that needs to be addressed now, with extra
funding of £100 million a year over four to five years, and
increased funding for communications and information technology.
But also we see that there is a pressing need to renew major infrastructure
created 30 or so years ago. Various people have given a broad
judgement of the kind of sum that is needed to renew that infrastructure
in research centres of real international excellence to enrich
the whole of research throughout the United Kingdom, and the figure
we have is £4-500 million. That is on top of the equipment.
Relate that to an annual funding for research of £2.5 billion
and we are talking, in round numbers, of getting on for a billion.
We have a big issue to face and that is stated squarely in the
report. There are other issues but if I had to identify one, it
is the excellence of the achievement at the cost of eating into
the seedcorn and its need for replacement.
2. Thank you very much indeed. Perhaps I should emphasise at the outset that colleagues in the House of Lords are interested in all aspects of your rather splendid report and, indeed, members of this Committee are interested in all aspects, but this Committee, as a Committee responsible for considering science and technology, is bound to emphasise most this morning your considerations of research. That is the only reason why the agenda may, to an extent, seem limited.
(Sir Ron Dearing) We recognise we are at hazard on
all matters in the report and are glad to respond.
3. We have, I hope, let you have a list of possible questions?
(Sir Ron Dearing) Yes, you did.
4. Following up your introductory remarks, do you see a need for more research, or for more adequate support of the current level of research?
(Sir Ron Dearing) If I may take that one, we are saying, first, that what we are doing - and that is the first priority - needs to be properly funded, and it is not. We do look to some expansion in funding for research under particular headings, but perhaps one ought to begin by some general justification for a view that there should be extra funding for research. I have a general view that if a thing is being done extremely well and it matters very much to national well-being, it is not a bad policy to invest in success. Our report shows that as a proportion of GDP we rank No. 5 in the G7 countries with, I think, 2.2 per cent of GDP in research. That is not a matter just for government; it is for the whole community. We spend about £14.5 billion on research and the government funds a third of that sum. Looking ahead to a basis for a successful national economic strategy, my judgement and the Committee's judgement is that it must be grounded in knowledge, research-based activities and, therefore, it must be a good long-term national strategy to encourage research. So as a general national strategy we see a case for some increase in research but we do not venture large numbers. We deal with it in particular ways. We suggest that the dual funding system is not working well at the moment, and we suggest that the research councils ought more fully to fund the projects they sponsor. We recommend that the overhead addition is raised from 45 to 60 per cent, which produces a figure, I am told, of £110 million. We identify ways in which that could be responded to and the first, and preferred, method is an increase in the quantum. Our Scottish Committee says without that there should be no change in the present arrangements. It is very clear on that. Our second option is to reduce the number of projects funded from the research councils, and the third option is a simple transfer, but the Committee, taking a view about the value of research and long-term needs, thinks there is a clear case for increasing funding. That is the main point. We recommend the creation of an Arts and Humanities Research Council, and that the present funding of just over £20 million - I think it is £21.5 million - should be increased progressively over the next three years by £8 million a year, to produce an extra £25 million over the three years. That would be additional funding. We also offer the view that collaborative research between the university sector and industry should be encouraged and over the long term we see that the fund of £50 million existing at present might be, say, doubled. Those are the main specifics, but in the long term assessment we make, we indicate that if the number of students studying at higher levels goes up, as it will, there would need to be increased funding to go with that. So in those ways, specifically identified, we look to increased funding within the framework of the value of research and the success of research in British institutions.
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) I think I would support all that.
We did not specifically address the question of how big the United
Kingdom research base should be because that raises a very wide
range of problems, as everyone here knows, my Lord Chairman, but
a number of the recommendations we make implicitly suggest that
it could well be larger than it is today. But I suppose the overriding
consideration is that no-one benefits from inadequately supported
research and, to some extent, the degree of selectivity one has
to have in the system is determined by the amount of money available,
and if you make a small amount of money available then you support
a small number of research projects but you support them properly.
We do not recommend that but that seems to us to be the way one
has to go.
5. May I begin by congratulating Sir Ron, as you did, on the general excellence of his report.
(Sir Ron Dearing) Thank you, my Lord.
6. It is greatly to be welcomed and will help enormously, I am sure, even if we do quibble with some of it. I ought also to declare that I am Chancellor of the University of Manchester and Chairman of the Nuffield Foundation. The question I wanted to ask was related to the last statement you made, Sir Ron, in your opening remarks. You paid warm tribute to the distinguished performance of the British universities in research and I am sure that 15 or 20 years ago that was most certainly true, that their performance was absolutely world-class over many, many fields. I wondered - and perhaps the Rector could answer this - whether there is hard evidence that that is still the case? It is not my impression that our distinction in research in the universities is now, in 1997, what it was 20 years ago. Is there hard evidence to support that statement?
(Sir Ron Dearing) Let me respond first and then turn to the Rector for a more expert response. We do quote in our report - and we recognise that it is an imperfect measure - citations in relation to the volume of research and it seemed from the figures we quoted that we do rather well. I am not sure-footed on numbers. I think we have about 9 per cent of the citations, and then there were the awards to which I referred. But there were also the impressions from visiting a number of overseas countries, where I did find respect for research in the United Kingdom. At the same time we do say in our text that we have, to some considerable extent, been living on the past and we see some evidence, from the measures that I quoted, that over the last few years we have been slipping. We think that reflects the under-funding and this, in turn, is reflected in the real expressions of concern we are getting from the highest levels of research-based industries in the United Kingdom, that they are now beginning to become concerned about our ability to match, in terms of quality of resource, the best institutions overseas. So taking a ten-year view, we have done well, but in the last few years the evidence is, as far as we have been able to see it, that it is slipping.
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) My Lord Chairman, this is a difficult
one again and I think the answer is that there is not hard evidence.
The problems are, as my Chairman indicated, that almost every
measure that you use has a time lag associated with it and so
anything that you measure today reflects the consequences of things
done five or maybe ten years ago and that is difficult to take
into account. If one looks at probably the best, although imperfect,
quantitative information available, it is the study carried out
by Sir Robert May and published in Science recently [7
February 1997, vol. 275, p. 793]. There is a rather longer and
more detailed departmental report associated with that and that
indicates that we are not doing badly but our position today relative
to our competitor countries is probably slipping, not enormously
but it is slipping. So our absolute position is not bad but the
trends do not look very good.
7. May I also add my praise to you and your Committee for this report. You have drawn attention to the need for additional funding for research and also drawn our attention to the problems of the infrastructure. I think you mentioned a moment ago the long-term aim of increasing the numbers of people going into undergraduate studies from 36 or 37 per cent to 45 per cent. How much is the ability to spend those additional resources on research itself dependent on increasing the numbers going through into research activity in academia? Is there a correlation, in your judgement, or would you in effect be able to spend those additional resources with the existing numbers who work in that field?
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) My Lord Chairman, the estimates
for future expenditure, or recommended future expenditure, on
research are based on the present size of the research base and,
indeed, the additions which are proposed are really needed to
make effective use of the present research base.
8. Can I move on to the next question. You say that there is a need for better co-ordination between the various support systems. The 1993 White paper invented something which I think is called the Science and Engineering Base Co-ordinating Committee?
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) Yes, indeed.
9. I am not surprised that you say you have been unable to study it because it seems to be a somewhat difficult body to study. Similarly, the Council for Science and Technology is not all that open to study. So how do you see this greater clarity being introduced?
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) This is an area which we would like
to have spent more time on, my Lord Chairman. It is hard to plead
lack of time but we did actually complete the report, under our
Chairman's "whip", very fast indeed. This is an area
which we certainly would like to have looked at in more detail,
and the nature of our recommendations is necessarily tentative,
but we were not convinced that any of the existing bodies were
really taking a panoramic view of science and research support
in the country as a whole. The research councils had their particular
view, their particular set of priorities, and they spoke
of their research programmes. There is a comparable pattern
of research in industry. The universities have their agenda. Particularly
in the medical area the Wellcome Foundation and other major medical
charities have a very important influence. We ourselves are proposing
additional funding streams and we felt that it would be in the
broad national interest if there was an influential and independent
group that was able to stand back and comment and, indeed, perhaps
on occasion nudge various parts of this highly desirable and complex
arrangement for support of research. We did not work things out
in detail simply because we did not have the time.
10. Were you thinking of something like the old, very old now, Advisory Council on Science and Technology?
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) Something of that kind.
(Sir Ron Dearing) But not required to proceed through
published reports, which tend to slow down the way things happen,
as people meticulously strive to make sure that what they say
will stand up to public scrutiny and so on. There is a human point
I would like to make which applies to all human activity. We are
condemned by our nature to be territorial; turf is protected vigorously.
There needs to be some body which does not have turf to protect,
which is taking the overall view to maximise the benefit we get
from research. So we thought an influential independent body with
access to the Prime Minister could be beneficial, such as ACARD
and ACOST, but proceeding - and this is very debateable - more
by advice given privately than through what I would describe as
"muzzle-loaded" procedures, that is, published reports.
11. I take your point, Sir Ron, about the disadvantages of publishing reports. On the other hand, there is an advantage, that you are speaking not only to government but also to the community at large, which needs to know more of what the thinking is.
(Sir Ron Dearing) I have found, my Lord Chairman,
in today's world, much though one would like to proceed in secret,
it is impossible. Also, I think from time to time a Committee
such as this might well choose to issue a published report. It
is just that, based upon experience, we thought there was wisdom
in not committing oneself to proceed in this rather formal muzzle-loaded
way. It is a slow procedure.
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) But we saw merit in both approaches.
12. Sir Ron, continuing this, which actually comes up again in some of our later questions, the possibility of resuscitating something like ACOST and ACARD, who do you see as the department possessing this outfit? It was originally the Cabinet Office, was it not?
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) Yes.
13. Do you see us going back to a Cabinet Office run thing?
We have no Minister for Science really, no department, and the
DTI is doing it at the moment.
(Sir Ron Dearing) I would prefer something that was
not linked into one departmental minister. We have a committee
at the moment, a distinguished committee chaired by - I am not
sure the title is used so much as it was in the last government
- the President of the Board of Trade, and we have another committee
under Sir Robert May. They have their departmental channels and
one of our purposes is to lift this above the interplay of departmental
interests and arguments.
14. You would agree that they in no sense can be called independent?
(Sir Ron Dearing) Absolutely, and they have a job
to do. They have a purpose.
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) I think this has to be Cabinet
Office. I would hesitate to say that Sir Robert May was not independent.
His office was set up with all sorts of checks and balances in
place to give him an interdepartmental role, even though he is
in DTI for pay and rations. But even so, I think that this ought
to be an independent body and it has to be Cabinet Office and
there are one or two precedents for this kind of thing in government.
Really a view across the whole range of departmental interests
has to be taken.
15. Could I press you a little and say, would you see the ultimate chairman of this as the Prime Minister?
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) It is not something we have discussed
but my personal view is that I think it would be impractical because
a Prime Minister simply does not have the time. I would see the
effective chairman probably as a senior person from industry.
(Sir Ron Dearing) But with direct access to the Prime
16. I understand that the President of the Board of Trade
does see herself as Chairman of the Council for Science and Technology.
(Sir Ron Dearing) Indeed.
17. We now get on to the topic of indirect costs. I noticed that during the report, Sir Ron, you, to my mind perfectly properly, eschewed the word overheads" but this morning you actually used it, rather to my distress. Could I ask you why you still come back in the body of the report and in your introduction to providing indirect costs as a proportion of staff salaries, whereas there are obvious objections to this such as that it encourages people to recruit staff that they do not necessarily need? It does not help people getting grants which do not require really the recruitment of additional research staff in terms of research assistants and so on. Why should not applicants for research grants put in a proper estimate of the indirect costs, such as the IT costs and so on which you come to later?
(Sir Ron Dearing) We do provide for that. In making
an application, if the applicant feels that the general figure
is inappropriate, then by all means they should pursue an alternative.
We do encourage in this report - and I placed some emphasis on
it - institutions to develop a much better understanding of their
costs and we think this will be entirely healthy. There is some
long way to go before I think they do have a full understanding
of their costs and perhaps it is not part of the tradition of
the university community to be so willing to record the necessary
information to allocate costs.
18. But you are among the makers of change, Sir Ron.
(Sir Ron Dearing) My Lord, I know my limitations!
But we do point the way ahead and we do recommend that there is
much better, harder information, and now that we are moving into
this communications and information technology society, in which
our institutions are well in the lead, there is no excuse, if
I may say so, over the next three years for not being much better
able to quantify costs. But given the present situation, we could
not find a "better hole" to go to. As I say, we do offer
the alternative. As for inflating cost levels, as a layman who
listens only and has no direct knowledge, I get the impression
that people feel there is advantage in bidding to a research council
not to overstate costs, in fact the other way round. So I do think
there is a countervailing pressure on inflating costs.
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) My Lord Chairman, if we actually
said explicitly that indirect costs should be proportional to
staff employed, I have to say that it is something that escaped
my eye in proof-reading the report. I do not recall that we used
precisely those words but if we did I would have excised them
if we had spotted them because, for precisely the reasons you
say, it is not a very sensible or practical way of estimating
indirect costs. I thought we had been rather specific and careful
and not based our statement on any particular method of calculating
indirect costs, but if we did I apologise.
19. Could I, I am afraid, remind you that in paragraph 11.29 you say -
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) I stand corrected!
20. - "We propose that the present rate met by the Research Councils of 45 per cent on staff costs should be increased to 60 per cent."
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) That is correct, but that is a statement
of the present situation. We can logic-chop on the context of
21. I take your agreement with my original statement?
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) Absolutely.
Chairman] Thank you. Could we now go on, since some of us
are actually rather excited about this issue, to the question
of block grants and student choice.
22. First of all, I would like to declare my interest as Chancellor of Middlesex University and also to add my congratulations to other noble Lords' for the report. I am particularly interested in the backing for work experience and continuing learning throughout life, and also I like the idea of encouraging HNDs and not just graduates, so this is for the good. At the beginning you emphasised the importance of wealth creation and the United Kingdom having a competitive situation, and you have repeated, Sir Ron, this morning, that we must compete. It seems to me that a large part of that is going to depend on able young people going into, I would say - I am biased obviously - engineering. We know that the choice level is going down. We also know that engineering and science courses are amongst the most expensive. So whilst backing those aims, but worrying about maths and physics teaching in schools, I was rather worried by your recommendation towards the end where you base your proposals for expansion on student choice. You do mention - and I would be with you all the way - "informed" choice. Nevertheless there is also the question of easy options?
(Sir Ron Dearing) Yes, thank you. When we were considering the form of the graduate contribution to the cost of higher education, we did have very much in mind that we should avoid, in a fee-based approach, any contribution related to the individual cost of courses and we, therefore, recommended a flat figure. That was very much to avoid causing students to opt for law or economics and away from engineering and the costly sciences. So we were totally with you on that. Turning to more specifics, on engineering, and I have had several discussions with the professional bodies, they did not have a concern about the numbers offering themselves for engineering. Their concern was about very high quality applicants and some dearth in those. We accepted their reading of need and went with them, but not in the precise way they had in mind, to encourage greater differentiation in the approach to engineering by students. From our whole approach of having a framework through which students can progress, we had in mind that there would be fast routes for those who are clear and able, and more gradual routes with more stepping-off points for those that have a lesser aptitude for a subject. So we did try that. For the sciences, in my view, the problem lies not in our universities, but in our schools. We are not in the schools encouraging sufficient young people to choose the sciences for their studies beyond the age of 16 and I have had many debates with the Royal Society about the countervailing advantages of going for broad science between 14 and 16 as opposed to the particular sciences and a concern that the very great success we have had in increasing the take-up of the sciences through double science between 14 and 16 has been at the cost of those who at the age of 16 have sufficient science to essay A levels in physics, chemistry and mathematics which are very tough. That debate still continues. I think we have to find a solution to that one if we are going to get the right number. Can I just say finally on that, my Lord Chairman, if our figures in this report are well based, compared with most other countries the proportion reading sciences is not low in this country; it is a smidgen above average. But to sum up we do share your concern and we tried to reflect it on our proposals on funding.
(Sir Ron Oxburgh) Could I add a little to that, my
Lord Chairman? I think the important thing is that the proposals
that we have put forward are to some extent a coherent whole and,
as our Chairman emphasised, this choice that we are suggesting
involves the student, the student's family, the student in the
long term, making a payment. Now, experience in North America
is very interesting in this respect because in the 1980s there
was a shift, because there is not a single system, but there was
a shift away from what in English parlance would be grants to
loans and the figures that we were shown when we were there suggested
that this change in funding support mechanism did have an influence
on student behaviour. What one saw was first of all no change
in the social make-up of the student body, that the same groups
seemed to participate in higher education. What one did see was
a shift in choice towards subjects which looked to be directly
related to employment away from those that did not and, in particular,
one saw a shift towards science, engineering, management and things
of that kind at the expense of the purer sciences and the humanities.
My concern under our proposed scheme is that our pure sciences
base might possibly be eroded and that this is something we would
have to keep under pretty close scrutiny.
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