Don't leave physics and chemistry departments with an uncertain future

24 June 2010

The Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics warn today that science departments in UK universities will be beset by financial difficulties if adequate funding is not ensured.

The two learned societies say that chemistry and physics departments in the UK have to be valued and supported throughout the austerity era to avoid squandering the UK's scientific supremacy.

In a joint foreword to a new report Follow-up Study of the Finances of Chemistry and Physics Departments in UK Universities, Dr Robert Kirby-Harris, Chief Executive at the Institute of Physics (IOP), and Dr Richard Pike, Chief Executive at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), say:

 "Any damage to our world-class science base from short-term cuts in funding cannot be easily reversed." 

The new study, which surveys the financial state of a representative sample of physics and chemistry departments in UK universities, shows that some departments face a precarious future because they are already receiving less than required to fund the teaching of their subjects.

This shortfall in teaching funds occurs despite enhanced investment from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); increased recognition by governments of the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates in society; and wide-ranging efficiency savings in the university departments - from increased class sizes to better use of facilities.

The report was commissioned to assess the impact of funding changes, including HEFCE's allocation of 25 million per year for strategically important and vulnerable subjects which was granted in response to the well-publicised attempted department closures, in particular the chemistry department at the University of Sussex and the physics department at the University of Reading.

All of the departments surveyed for their financial position were assessed on both their research and teaching costs. 

All of the physics and chemistry departments ran in deficit with their research activities: chemistry departments ran deficits ranging from -8.7% to -77.9%; and physics departments ranging between -1.2% and -79.8%.

On teaching, things are brighter in England, partly due to HEFCE's 25 million per year allocation, with some chemistry departments reporting a +10% surplus, this is against others reporting a 50% deficit; a similar pattern was present in physics departments, ranging between +26.7% and -31%.  

Because HEFCE's allocation only benefits English universities, the picture for teaching is much bleaker in the few Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish universities surveyed.

Concern from the learned societies is being raised now as governments and, subsequently, prudent vice-chancellors decide where to make cuts. 

The learned societies' chief executives continued, "A strategy for the sustainable provision of chemistry and physics in the UK is vital if we are to reap the benefits that these disciplines bring to our standard of living and well-being both now and in the future."

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