The death of science? By Stephen Court

24 Mar 05
Last week's Budget announced more support for university-based research. But will it be enough to save the science departments that are closing across Britain? Stephen Court reports on the parlous state of the nation's boffins

25 March 2005

Last week's Budget announced more support for university-based research. But will it be enough to save the science departments that are closing across Britain?  Stephen Court reports on the parlous state of the nation's boffins

A swathe of recent department closures in English and Welsh universities has put the government under pressure to protect strategically important subjects. The closures have particularly affected science and mathematics departments, and have raised questions about whether the government and the higher education funding councils should intervene when degree provision is under threat.

With the expected general election approaching, the closures have also cast doubts on the government's potentially vote-winning ten-year science plan – unveiled last July – which seems to be running aground in universities despite big UK increases in science spending.

The most prominent closures have been at the University of Exeter, which is to shut its chemistry and music departments. There was particular concern about chemistry because Exeter's decision late last year followed the closure of departments at Swansea; King's College London; Queen Mary, University of London;  Salford; and De Montfort universities. In the decade from 1992, 18 chemistry cost centres (similar to departments) at universities closed, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. Over the same period, more than 30% of physics departments have either merged or closed, says the Institute of Physics.

The reasons for these closures include a reduction in student numbers, general cost-cutting and universities' desire to concentrate resources on departments achieving – or with the potential to achieve – top-rated research. The high cost of providing chemistry and other laboratory-based subjects means that smaller departments are likely to go to the wall. And, in England, the funding weightings for teaching laboratory-based science subjects were reduced last year, with a knock-on effect on recurrent income.

Although chemistry at Exeter had a rating of four in the most recent research assessment exercise (RAE) – meaning its research was of national and some international excellence – and student numbers were relatively buoyant, the university estimated the department was losing £800,000 a year, and so decided to pull the plug. Provision of chemistry will be phased out by 2008, leaving the Southwest with only two chemistry departments with strong research records.

Since the Exeter decision, the University of Hull has announced it is to close its mathematics department, and the University of Dundee its chemistry department. A number of other higher education institutions, including Brunel, Sussex and Bangor universities, have announced cost-cutting and restructuring exercises involving the loss of academic and support staff posts. Although some, like Sussex, are principally aiming to cut spending, others, like Brunel, want to replace existing academics with staff who have a higher research profile.

Falling student numbers in 'big science' subjects is certainly an issue. Overall, the number of full-time undergraduates rose from 970,000 in 1995/96 to 1.1 million in 2002/03 but in chemistry they fell from 14,300 to 11,600 and in physics from 9,400 to 9,100 in the same period. The number of full-time undergraduates in physical science overall fell from 51,400 to 47,500; in biology from 17,900 to 17,400; and in engineering and technology from 95,000 to 77,000. However, the number studying mathematics has risen from 12,900 to 16,900.

The quality of research carried out in a department is another essential issue. Every five years or so, the universities' RAE grades the output of departments. The ratings range from one, meaning no national excellence, to five-star, meaning the majority of research is of international excellence. The rating is then fed into the formula used by the higher education funding councils of England, Scotland and Wales for calculating each institution's share of recurrent grant for research. In recent years, funding has been restricted to departments gaining a four rating or above, with a few small exceptions. Resources were squeezed still further in England, with a cap on funding for four-rated departments, although for 2005/06 these will receive a real-terms increase.

Although the bulk of recurrent grant allocated by the funding councils is for teaching, a top research rating is highly coveted. A five- or five-star research rating will bring prestige and a sustainable level of recurrent funding. It will also be extremely useful in supporting the department if its staff are bidding for research project grants from the UK's research councils, industry, the government, the European Union or charities, which fund a great deal of medical research.

The closure of so many science departments – particularly in physics and chemistry – has brought calls for the government to step in. This is out of concern that the reduction in science provision is damaging to Britain's national economic, political and social interests. A further concern is over the regional impact of the closures, particularly since more students are deciding to cut debts by continuing to live at home.

Last December, the then secretary of state for education and skills, Charles Clarke, wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England for advice on when intervention might be right to enable subjects of 'national strategic importance' to be available. Clarke's list of strategic subjects included Arabic and Turkish language studies – for security purposes; Japanese and Chinese language studies – for trade purposes; science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and courses related to cultural and creative industries. Hefce is due to provide interim advice in April, but will not have its final say until June.

The recent closures of science departments have been an embarrassment to the government, which hopes its record of support for science will be a vote-winner. Since 1997, Chancellor Gordon Brown has pumped extra billions of pounds into the science base. The aim has been to make good past underinvestment in infrastructure and research project funding, to boost recurrent funding, and to pump-prime knowledge transfer and high-tech university spin-off companies – policies that were underlined by announcements last week in the Budget in support of research and university-business interaction.

But the government's 2004–2114 science and innovation investment framework is being promoted against a backdrop of falling numbers of science students and reduced university provision. The Royal Society of Chemistry says: 'Without some sort of short-term financial support, many strategically important but currently not world-class SET [science, engineering and technology] research and teaching centres are likely to close over the next three to five years, and undermine the goals of the government's plan.'

Although Hefce has lifted the cap on funding increases for four-rated departments, this might not be enough to prevent more closures. Improvements in the proportion of departments getting the top ratings in the RAE mean more universities are chasing a reduced slice of funding. This means that a greater funding boost is needed than that included in Hefce's grant allocations for 2005/06.

Direct intervention would be a more radical solution for beleaguered science departments. In January, the Institute of Physics told the House of Commons science and technology select committee, which is conducting an inquiry into strategic science provision in English universities: 'The solutions to the problems facing physics departments are of a medium- to long-term nature. However, if the situation worsens, there may be a need for the government to intervene with a short-term fix, by providing funds (possibly with strings attached to encourage change) to prevent several more struggling physics departments from closing.'

But the government is wary of such a step. Universities have a tradition of freedom in what they teach and research, and which students they admit – albeit limited by the extent to which they depend on the public purse. Higher education minister Kim Howells told the select committee this month: 'Universities are very jealous of their autonomy. They don't like being told what to teach. The great underlying problems are the number of young people choosing not to do science subjects. We can't force people to study these subjects.'

And Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of Hefce, has said: 'More needs to be done to stimulate demand, and many of the answers involve working with schools. Increasing the unit of resource for chemistry will not, on its own, produce a single extra chemistry student. Offering an open-ended subsidy will simply encourage institutions to engage in internal transfer pricing to ensure that every “strategically important” subject is duly loss-making.'

But perhaps the last word should go to Professor Sir Harry Kroto, formerly of the University of Sussex, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996 for his discovery of a new form of carbon molecule. Last November, he returned his honorary degree from Exeter in protest against the closure of the chemistry department. 'It was an honour from a university that at the time recognised that chemistry was one of the major subjects and that all universities that can call themselves universities must have it, and have a strong science faculty. If it decides that it no longer has that, and it is not a priority, then I don't wish to have an honour from that university. It's as simple as that.'

Stephen Court is senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers