RSC enters debate over R&D funding


13 August 2010

With the approach of the Government's autumn CSR (Comprehensive Spending Review) the RSC has entered the recent debate over research and development funding, via a letter sent to Professor Adrian Smith, Director General, Science and Research, Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

RSC chief executive Richard Pike pointed to a quartet of messages of extreme importance to ensure a sound R&D community for Britain in the future to keep the country competitive and innovative.

 

Dear Adrian,

There has been much discussion recently on the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) later this year, and I am aware that other learned societies have made representations to you on their views of the priorities they consider to be important. From the standpoint of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), the four principal messages which we would wish to convey address the total level of government funding for research and development (R&D), funding of teaching in universities, the effectiveness of scientific decision-making within Government, and the desirability of independent advice to improve scientific and economic outcomes for the benefit of the country.

Level of R&D Funding

Current Governmental funding of 1.7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) places UK at 14th in a recent comparative assessment (attached), and further decline risks opening a wider gap between ourselves and our major industrial competitors such as Japan, US, South Korea, Germany and France. Although China, at about 1.4% of GDP, is less than that for the UK, this proportion is increasing rapidly over time and in absolute terms far exceeds all other countries, with the exception of Japan and the US. Indeed, within the chemistry sector, we expect China to overtake the US next year to become the largest source of scientific papers published in the world.

It is not appropriate at this stage to promote one particular sector over another, but you may be interested in the work that the RSC has done in developing a framework for the future through the two enclosed documents (summary and main report) entitled Chemistry for Tomorrow's World - A roadmap for the chemical sciences, July 2009. This identifies seven priority areas in energy, food, future cities, human health, lifestyle & recreation, raw materials & feedstocks, and water & air, all of which are either led or significantly underpinned by chemistry.

In the report Follow-up Study of the Finances of Chemistry and Physics Departments in UK Universities, which is also enclosed, a sample of eleven chemistry departments showed that all were in deficit on research activity during the period 2007-08, largely because the overhead element of grants was still short of full economic costing (FEC). The very significant contribution of the chemical sciences to the country's economy is to be summarised in a report by Oxford Economics entitled The economic benefits of chemistry research to the UK, which will be launched later this year.

Funding of Teaching in Universities

The financial position of teaching in chemistry at university over the same period 2007-08 in the above report showed significant improvement because of increased tuition fees from home undergraduates and additional funding from HEFCE for strategically important and expensive laboratory-based subjects. Even so, most of the departments in the study were operating with a teaching deficit approaching 10%. Moreover, the future situation is likely to deteriorate, because of the downturn on  public expenditure, upward pressure on staff costs and the decline in 17-18 year olds during the period 2010-2019. Given the contribution of the chemistry and chemistry-dependent industries to the UK economy, it is essential that we develop a long term vision for the chemical sciences in higher education, with chemistry-related science available to undergraduates at all universities, in order to maintain and further develop the science base within the UK. 

It is also noteworthy that much of the expansion in the tertiary sector of education in the last two decades has been in the non-science sector.  If there are to be cuts in expenditure, we would argue that they should not be proportionate across all subjects, but that science be 'sheltered' to reflect the pivotal role it will play in the future.

Effectiveness of Scientific Decision-Making

The RSC considers that not only the level of funding, but the way in which science-based decisions are made within Government, is extremely important. As one example, £250 million was earmarked by the Department for Transport to subsidise motorists in disposing of their petrol or diesel vehicles to purchase electric cars, although with the current fuel mix in UK power stations this would have an almost negligible impact on the carbon footprint of the country. Furthermore, nearly all electric cars are made overseas, and in putting these matters into perspective, the 'wasted' £250 million represents approximately one-third of the annual R&D budget of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

In one further example, the same Department spent £millions on a poster and television campaign to encourage motorists to drive five miles less each week. Even if everyone had complied (and few did), the reduction in the UK carbon footprint would have been just 0.3%. Sometime afterwards, during a lecture at the Science Council, the Chief Scientific Adviser confirmed that in this particular case 'no-one had done the sums'. This highlights the need for greater effectiveness across Government in the communication and application of science, which will inevitably also enhance the outcomes from R&D, and potentially free up funds to address priority areas.

Independent Advice to Improve Scientific and Economic Outcomes

The RSC sees a risk in Government relying too heavily on a small number of organisations for advice, when these entities are not independent but are to some extent themselves supported by Government funds or have particular links with Government. The above examples suggest that the current provisions provide too little challenge to Government decision-making. Moreover, within the overall skills supply chain - of which R&D is one part - the key area of secondary school education, which is essential to support skills for the innovation process, has seen an extraordinary decline in standards over many years, with only a few organisations (such as some of the learned societies) publicly challenging this. Those bodies with significant Governmental funding, or particularly linked to what is now the Department for Education, have remained silent or 'pulled their punches'. It has taken a revitalised Ofqual to declare retrospectively the 2009 GCSE science examinations as 'too easy', and to reject the future curriculum and assessment provisions in science for all the Awarding Bodies.

That we do not have a credible secondary school science system, despite the machinery of Government (and as we are both aware, the concerns and constructive efforts of BIS), suggests the need for greater independent scrutiny, and we would welcome the opportunity to play a more formalised role in this.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Richard Pike
Chief Executive, Royal Society of Chemistry

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