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Monthly Report on Science and Education Policy March 2002

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Biochemical Society / UKLSC policy work

The Biochemical Society 2000 Graduate Employment Survey provided hard evidence that more bright first-degree and PhD graduates are shunning research careers: (see www.biochemistry.org/education/survey/gradsur00/gradsur00.htm) A consultation of Society members on factors affecting the recruitment and retention of bioscientists agreed some of the reasons for the movement away from academic research. Student debt, poor salaries and career prospects in academic science compared with jobs outside science, inadequate career guidance in early post-doc years, and a lack of family-friendly policies in academic life (see January report). The Chairman of the Society sent copies of these two surveys to the Ministers for Science and for Higher Education with an accompanying letter arguing that steps must be taken now to improve academic career prospects before the situation leads to a reduction in quality of research output. The surveys were also sent to BBSRC Council, which is to consider issues of recruitment and retention at its April meeting.

The Society contributed to the UKLSC submission to the Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the Scientific Learned Societies. The submission highlighted what UKLSC has achieved in science and education policy by focusing on issues where it can make a difference, and through bringing together and working in collaboration with other leading bodies in the medical and physical sciences (see www.uklsc.org/responses.htm).

Digests of reports in journals and newspapers

Science Policy: UK  The Science Minister launched a new guide for universities on managing intellectual property, produced by the DTI, Patent Office, Universities UK and the Association of University Research and Industry Links. It contained advice on budget management, ownership of IPR and negotiations with sponsors, collaboration between universities to manage IPR, and performance indicators and evaluation (DTI media release, 18/3). An article in THES (22/3) noted that many commentators consider that IPR development is not going to make enough money to help the great majority of UK universities. But the government emphasis on commercialisation has the potential to cause considerable harm by reducing collaboration and sharing of information between researchers, and leading to conflicts of interest. The Science Policy Research Unit (Sussex) considered that the real problem with knowledge transfer in the UK is that much of industry is simply uninterested. SPRU recommended that the government should "stop all these fancy initiatives and get back to funding high-quality basic research. The good industrialist simply wants universities to explore exciting new fields". Save British Science (SBS) said "The only way universities can ever contribute to the economy is by doing good research that industry will want. That, alongside teaching, has got to be their core business"

The Commons Trade and Industry Committee is launching an inquiry into the international competitiveness of the UK biotech industry. It will focus on the exploitation of R&D and investigate how the DTI should be helping business to develop from the research base (Res Ft, 27/3). The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, BioIndustries Association and SBS welcomed the Treasury decision to introduce a new tax credit to encourage larger companies to invest in R&D, that would be based solely on the volume of R&D undertaken. The tax package announced was considered to make the UK a more attractive location for multi-nationals (SBS media release, 26/3; FT, 27/3).

A report commissioned by the OST as part of the government's transparency review found a 3 billion backlog in the maintenance of university infrastructure. Money from recent government infrastructure schemes had been used largely to fund new initiatives rather than to update old facilities. Furthermore, because universities had to find money from their own resources in order to qualify for Joint Infrastructure Fund grants, other areas suffered in many institutions. The report recommended that:

  • Universities must take responsibility for the maintenance of their asset base;
  • Government should provide a capital funding scheme to address the backlog of investment, and improve the recurrent funding of research so that universities can cover its full cost.
Competition between universities and RAE pressures had caused institutions to increase research volume irrespective of whether full costs could be recovered (Res Ft, 27/3; THES, 5/4).

The Association of University Teachers described HEFCE's block grant funding allocations post-RAE 2001 as "the clearest statement yet that the UK is heading for a two-tier university system where only some institutions are funded to carry out research". One notable change in the funding formula is that the weighting for high-cost lab subjects has been decreased from 1.7 to 1.6. HEFCE has invited Universities UK to discuss the future methods for funding teaching and research. UUK will argue the need for a mechanism that avoids sharp annual changes such as this year's following the RAE (Res Ft, 13/3; THES, 15/3). Speaking in advance of the publication of the report of the Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into RAE 2001 Ian Gibson MP suggested that research assessment should be carried out less frequently. Emerging departments should be able to ask for assessment when they are ready, and departments performing consistently strongly should be excluded from the exercise. He was highly critical of HEFCE for not anticipating an improvement in RAE grades and setting money aside (THES, 5/4).

The overview of the Biological Sciences RAE panel contained some interesting commentary (see www.rae.ac.uk/overview/).

  • 10 out of 61 institutions made more than one submission to the panel, typically one for biochemistry / molecular biology and one or more for other aspects of biology. Overall there was a slight reduction in total staff submitted;
  • Several members of the panel had served on biochemistry or biological sciences panels in 1996 and considered that the increase in 5 or 5*-rated departments represented genuine improvement rather than grade drift;
  • Research-active staff tended to be concentrated in high-scoring departments (73% in the 54% of submissions rated 5 or 5*), bearing out the claim that funding council money had enabled successful departments to develop;
  • Funding from the Wellcome Trust and other charities (80% of that provided by OST sources) had made a major contribution to the improvement found in the biological sciences;
  • The panel did not receive a substantial amount of work of immediate application to industry or public bodies, but much fundamental research that could be applied with appropriate insight and resources;
  • The subject distribution of RAE panels did not reflect closely the way that biological sciences is structured in universities; cell biology work could have been submitted to several panels, for instance. 5-rated submissions also spanned a wide range in structure and quality, while meeting the overall requirements for the grade. The panel recommended some sub-division of the grade in any future RAE.

About 100 researchers, politicians, members of lobby groups and members of the public took part in a Royal Society Science in Society meeting that addressed whether the public trusts scientists. Issues discussed included a perceived lack of mechanisms to involve the public in debate on key science topics; concerns about commercial conflicts of interest; and the difficulties of communicating science through the media (Nat, 14/3). Young researchers from chemistry, biology, physics and engineering had the opportunity at a Voice of the Future event to tell members of the Commons Science and Technology Committee how low salaries, student debt and a poor public image of science were turning them off academic careers. Other concerns included the difficulty in taking a career break, short-term contracts, and the conservatism of Research Councils when considering speculative research grant applications. Ian Gibson said "There's too much talk and too little work. If we don't do something now the science base in Britain will slip back". Nevertheless, he felt that science was high on the government agenda and that this is a good time to be working in science (THES, 29/4).

The Research Defence Society is pressing the government to improve the 'cumbersome and inflexible' licensing system for animal experiments that requires scientists from abroad to undertake lengthy training courses irrespective of their level of experience. This makes it difficult for UK departments to arrange short-term working visits (Res Ft, 27/3).

Science Policy: International  Two on-line papers in Nature raised doubts over earlier claims that adult stem cells taken from one type of tissue can be converted into an entirely different type. The recent research suggested that cell fusion may account for the plasticity apparently observed for adult cells. Other workers, in turn, commented that the experimental design of the recent studies may have provided conditions favouring fusion that were not present in earlier work. Whatever the explanation the results are seen to indicate that research using human embryonic stem cells will continue to be necessary. The publications come at a sensitive time when the US Senate is about to debate the ethics of stem cell research (FT, 14/3; New Sci, 16/3; Nat, 20/3). There is concern that the recent claim by an Italian fertility specialist to have successfully implanted a cloned human embryo into a surrogate mother may have a distorting effect on the Senate debate (FT, 8/4).

A National Research Council committee recommended that the US Department of Agriculture should strengthen its procedures for approving field trials and commercialisation of transgenic plants. It wanted an independent organisation to set up a programme for long-term monitoring of such plants for unanticipated environmental impacts (Sci, 1/3). Nature disowned a paper that it published last year that presented evidence that genes from GM maize had accidentally crossed into a traditional variety. More than 100 leading biologists had protested that the design and interpretation of the study were flawed (Times, Gdn, 5/4). The decision by the Indian government to allow farmers to grow three strains of GM cotton under defined conditions (Sci, 29/3; Nat, 4/4) was welcomed as reflecting growing confidence in emerging countries that potential benefits of GM crops outweigh possible risks (FT, 2/4).

The criticism of the journal Science by leading geneticists for publishing a paper from Syngenta on the rice japonica strain genome without requiring the company to deposit the sequence in a public database was widely reported (eg Nat, 14/3; Ind, 18/3; Times, 5/5). The editor of Science argued that the journal "would consider rare exceptions to its general rule where the public benefits of publishing work justified allowing a company to claim trade-secret status for part of the information". Syngenta insisted that publicly funded academic researchers would be given ready access to its sequence database.

In a View from the Top article in Res Ft (27/3) Peter Cotgreave (SBS) called for the same principles of openness, scientific excellence and effective peer review to apply to EU funding as for funds distributed through national research councils. At present it is unclear to what extent Framework funds are distributed according to a clear scientific rationale or as an instrument of social policy. Germany is poised to pass a constitutional amendment that animals must be treated as fellow creatures and protected from avoidable pain. Researchers fear that the proposed bill would interfere with their right to carry out research using animals and that they would become bogged down in legal challenges from animal rights groups (Nat, 28/3). The Lords Select Committee on the EU advised the government to reject an EU proposal to check the safety of 30,000 chemicals introduced before 1981 in an exercise likely to require more than 10 million animals over 10 years. The committee called for work to be funded to develop more non-animal toxicity screens, and recommended that the EU focus initially on testing a few hundred chemicals that are considered most dangerous (FT, 13/3; THES, 29/4).

Higher Education  In a discussion paper on future funding methods HEFCE repeated its belief that there is too much competition for research funds and that there has to be a change in the sector's attitudes. Howard Newby thinks that 'third-leg' mission offers the greatest opportunity for universities to tap into non-research funds, and this activity may attract additional resources such as regional development funds. Newby insisted that there would be no attempt to make formal distinctions between universities with different missions. HEFCE is inviting the community to submit views on where HE should be in 10 years time (Gdn Ed, 19/3; Res Ft, 27/3).

The new light touch teaching quality assessment regime will rely heavily on 6-year audits of universities' own quality assurance systems. Subject reviews will be dropped except where the audits reveal problems. Universities will have to publish more information for stakeholders on quality and standards, including summaries of external examiners' reports and surveys of graduate impressions of their departments and courses (FT, 21/3; THES, 22/3). Scottish and Welsh funding agencies, like the English one, protected the funding of departments ranked 5* in the RAE, but differed in their treatment of 3-rated departments. In Scotland 3b departments would not be funded, and only those 3a departments that had improved their grade over 1996 and were at universities that did not previously receive significant resources for research. The Welsh decided to fund both 3a and 3b departments, but the units of resource for these grades decreased compared to the previous year (Res Ft, 27/3; THES, 29/4). The Welsh Assembly rejected proposals from its education committee that would have restricted research in Wales to an axis around Cardiff, but recognised that some form of re-organisation of HE is required (Res Ft, 13/3).

Secondary Education  An editorial in Nat (7/3) considered that science had been added to the topics to be covered in citizenship lessons in English schools almost as an afterthought. It was critical that no resource or time had been set aside to train teachers. Since much of the citizenship agenda seemed intended to address a growing reluctance among young people to engage in politics the inclusion of science ethics could risk alienation by association. A meeting organised in February by the Association for Science Education and the Wellcome Trust found that most teachers attending were enthusiastic about citizenship lessons. But an earlier Wellcome Trust survey found that many science teachers felt they lacked the skills to initiate classroom discussion on science ethics.

Nearly 2000 16-19 year-olds participated in an on-line consultation on GCSE science organised by the Science Museum as part of Science Year. Three quarters would have liked the curriculum to be better linked to real-life practical examples, and more than half felt that GCSE tests memory of facts rather than understanding. Responders wanted smaller classes, more practical work, and greater emphasis on the moral and ethical implications of science. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is developing a hybrid science GCSE that will be made up of a compulsory core followed by academic or vocational options. The QCA also intends to include more investigation questions to test understanding in national curriculum tests (TES, 22/3 and 15/3). Research conducted by the QCA suggested that the negative reaction of universities to 6th form reforms threatened to undermine Curriculum 2000 (particularly the key skills qualification). 42% of teachers questioned were dismayed by the attitude of university admissions tutors (THES, 22/3; TES, 12/4).

Data collected annually at Queen's Belfast on the performance of biological sciences students in a first year test of conceptualised numeracy skills provided quantitative evidence that these skills are frequently lacking despite the students having passed GCSE or A-level maths. There was a steady decline in marks in the test between 1995 and 2000. Many students had trouble with questions requiring knowledge of fractions, logs or units of measurement. The university commented that it is difficult to convince students that they need to improve their numeracy skills in 'catch-up' classes. Part of the reason for the decline in skills was ascribed to a huge over-dependence on calculators, that leaves students with little idea if the answer they obtain to any calculation is plausible (THES, 12/4).




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