Science, Money and Teaching in Britain

With the closure of University departments throughout England (Chemistry at Exeter and Architecture at Cambridge just announced this week), and the Science Minister called to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee today, UK science funding has been making headlines (or at least showing up on media radar) over the last couple of days. Currently, departmental funding comes from several sources: teaching funds come from HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England; research funding from HEFCE via a complicated formula depending on the number of students in the department, and also depending on the department’s rating in the ‘Research Assessment Exercise‘ (RAE); further research funding comes direct from organizations like the research councils (for example, my research is funded by PPARC, the Particle Physics and Astrophysics Research Council).

The recent row over university fees for students arises from the fact that, in many universities, research income is essentially covering for a lack of direct teaching income from the government. The perverse upshot of this, however, is that departments without the highest possible RAE ratings (5 or 5*) find it difficult to stay open, irrespective of their teaching quality. Ironically, this works against the government’s (wrongheaded, I think) idea of concentrating research in a small group of universities with a wider range concentrating on teaching.

Other ideas for research funding are being considered, not just in the UK but throughout Europe, where a European Science Council is being funded, although if my experience of the interaction of individual nations within organizations like the European Space Agency is any guide, it’s difficult to see how such a supranational body could be effective. From BBC News: Stakes high for EU science plans: Europe must make good on plans to set up an independent funding body for science or face an unprecedented brain drain, a leading scientist has warned. (See also this editorial in the Guardian over the weekend.)

Finally, organizations like Save British Science and Scientists for Global Responsibility are interested not only in the funding of Science, but equally important questions such as what science we pursue and the way we pursue it.