Contributions to the consultation on the science and technology white paper for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by the National Postgraduate Committee (1993)

The National Postgraduate Committee is very pleased to be able to take this opportunity to respond to the consultation of Science and Technology, as it recognises the Government's important work in this area. Postgraduate students and researchers are in an interesting position in that they are not only receiving training of the highest quality but are also contributing to the knowledge base and are therefore directly involved in the promotion of science and technology. It in this second area, that of research, that we feel that our views would be most relevant.

The National Postgraduate Committee is formed from the representative of postgraduates from Students Associations at universities and other institutions. It represents postgraduates' interests both through these Associations and through the other educational and professional bodies with which it has links.

We aim to try to answer some of the questions raised by the Chancellor of the Duchy where they are relevant to academic research, and secondly address some more general points which the consultation exercise brings to light.

Why does the UK seem to be less successful than its competitors in translating inventions to the market place? Why is this more so in some industries than other?

This country has an excellent system of basis research, which provides ideas which are the envy of the world. However, there is not enough support for applied research to see these ideas put into production. Other countries, which provide more support for applied research, in many cases use ideas originally developed in Britain as a basis for their work.

Do we have an agreed measure of the capacity of an industry, or a firm, to innovate?

The recent Research Assessment Exercises have tried to assess the research capabilities of universities. There is a danger in such measures, mainly because repeated measurement by the same techniques may eventually cause distortion of the object being measured. The emphasis in the RAE on publications, for example, is causing increased pressure for academics to get their work published, although the standard of the journal may be poorer. It is debatable whether such exercises can measure such a transient thing as research accurately enough to be of use, and may lead to increased short-termism. Since good researchers with good equipment will produce the best results, the emphasis should be on procuring these, rather than measuring exactly what is produced.

Do we get optimum benefit from our international collaborative programmes, especially in the European Community, and do they complement our national programmes well?

Research collaboration within Europe is highly prestigious and benefits this country. However, with the new costing structure for overheads, the funding councils are insisting that research contracts include a 40% premium towards overheads, whereas the European Community is only prepared to pay 20%. This is resulting in some institutions advising rejection of such contracts. A similar thing may happen with contracts funded by charities. The Government should guarantee the extra sum in these cases as bait to ensure that the larger sum is spent within this country.

Does the UK get the very best value for money from Government's considerable expenditure on science and technology?

The Committee feels that the present system provides excellent training in basic research, and that the 3 year PhD system extracts very good value for money when compared to the longer courses in other countries. It does feel, however, that training in applied research could be improved, perhaps by such schemes as the Doctor of Engineering the SERC is piloting.

Are spending priorities right or would the Government be better advised to spend money on other areas of science and technology than the ones it funds at present?

The Committee feels that there is at present a bias towards basic research, mainly because the Government's hopes for increased industrial support on the applied side have not been realised. However, the Committee, while suggesting that any new money would be better targeted towards the applied side of research, would caution against a transferral of existing funds since this would jeopardise the existing basic research core. This is particularly important in the light of the increased research opportunities in the ex-polytechnic sector, which may already be in danger of diluting the basic research core.

Does the Government have the right advisory structures at its centre to help it take decisions on priorities?

The Government has in place an excellent system through the Research Councils of support for project based research, and through the funding councils for basic research support. We feel that this system works very well. It would not be beneficial, and may even be detrimental, to increase government planning in this area, as these councils have proved themselves to be expert at their work and it is not the job of government to be involved to low level planning.

How can we best ensure that the strong upward trend in industrial R & D expenditure in the UK will continue and gather pace in the years to come, so that our record is as good as the best of our competitors?

There is not, at present, an upward trend in industrial research funding, as figures from the Royal Society show. As we are in a recession, and industrial expenditure curtailed, it is even more important that the Government provide extra money, either directly or indirectly, to support research. Such research could then provide the fuel for recovery.

In the absence of direct funding, the tax system should be used to encourage firms to spend more money on research. Industrial research spending has been consistently low in comparison to other countries, and it is important that this is improved.

Is the UK working in areas of basic science which have less marketable derivatives than those on which our international competitors concentrate their efforts?

Again, the Committee feels that the fault is not with the basis research, but with the applied research which turns such research into viable products.

Is there scope for improved training opportunities in science and technology?

Again we would emphasis that on the basis research side the training given is excellent. However, the training for applied research requires improvement. This is connected with

Good training in applied research requires links with industry. The Committee welcomes such proposals as the Parnaby scheme, which it feels will improve training and foster greater links between academic and industry.

What steps do we need to take to improve the status of scientists and engineers?

This is an old problem, which is unlikely to be solved quickly. By supporting the engineering profession, the Government will, by example, show that it is here that the future prosperity of the country lies. It is only by such measures that the status of these professions will improve.

At a more general level, the Committee would like to see an increased commitment to applied research. However, this should not be at the expense of basis research, which would be endangered if money were to be transferred. Any such transferal would also prevent the increase in the research base which the new universities are keen to deliver. For this reason, we do not favour any further transfer from the funding councils to the research councils. The Dual Support system should continue, since it provides a good foundation for academic research. It also simplifies institutional planning. Further transfers would increase uncertainty and mean more money being spent on a short term contract basis. This would be very bad for research over the long term.

The Committee would like to see more schemes like the SERC's Doctor of Engineering, which would create useful links between academia and industry. However, this must be backed by proper financing, so that the firm involved feels that they are benefiting from the academic, not being burdened by them, and the salary should be high enough to attract good candidates. We see the salary as being very important. It should not be in the form of a grant — the academic should be considered as doing a job of work.

We must have long term thinking in research. There should be more long term contracts, and the trend of replacing permanent staff with short term staff must stop. If employees are worried about where their next contract is coming from they will spent a large proportion of their time trying to attract a new contract rather than working on the one they have. A large number of short term posts means that there is no proper career structure. A good career structure is necessary to attract the best candidates into research.

In the long term, attracting good candidates is the best way of `value for money' and that the money is being spent where it is best utilised.

Finally, the Committee feels that we must get away from the idea that researchers doing higher degrees are on some form of paid sabbatical, with a degree thrown in for good measure. Such people are highly trained individuals undertaking valuable employment which benefits the country — they should be treated accordingly.