Dismay and Decadence in British Universities

The following letter was published in the August, 1999, issue of Science and Public Affairs, published by the British Association with support from the Royal Society. It was in response to a Special Issue on Science Funding.

Dear Sir,

The Special Issue of Science Public Affairs displays in many ways an alarming complacency, and a naïvety about the modes of science progress, the methods of achieving and choosing `excellence', and the level of support.


Let me take the latter issue first. Adair Turner writes: `We strongly believe that only by funding the best, in a targeted, focused way, can we ensure that we get research which is high quality, up to date, and genuinely pushes forward the barriers of knowledge.' This assumes there is some genuine, sure, way of making such choices, of `beating the market', and that this way is embedded in current modes of assessment. It is like investing only in excellent, quality, top performing companies, such as, perhaps, IBM, ICI, Sainsbury, and Marks and Spencers, or assuming that clear and immediate return is all, as in the planting of uniform conifer forests.

No contributor seems to have studied the history of the theory of continental drift (now plate techtonics), read Kuhn on scientific revolutions or Lovelock on the reports of his referees. Susan Greenfield writes in the Education section of the Independent of 8th July about this problem of refused support to innovative proposals by workers with excellent track records.

The best can be the enemy of the good. The idea that that you can get innovative science without a broad base, without diversity is crazy. In the discussion documents on the RAE the words originality, vitality, diversity, do not occur. The continual reference is to some undefined `quality', while the `quality of quality' is undiscussed.

The RAE is designed as a cost cutting exercise, in the pursuit of cheap `knowledge'. The exercise itself has also been done on the cheap: one Panel Member on the last RAE wrote: `The pay was derisory.' The question is not that an RAE should not be done, nor that the Panel Members are not trying to do their best, but what weight of financial consequence for a 4 year period should be placed on an exercise whose administration has to be cheap, to be realistic, and whose information basis, modes of judgement, intellectual basis, and consequences for research planning are, in their nature, hazardous? The financial consequences were not part of the information for Panel Members.

Here is an analogy. A rose grower may know from experience that to produce 5 champion roses you need to grow say 2,000 roses from seedling to flower. This of course is a probabalistic forecast - you may produce less than 5, or more, but the chances are good that you will produce at least 1. An efficiency expert may then argue that this is not cost effective. Why not try growing 400 roses? Also, try giving fertiliser principally to the `excellent' groups of seedlings (known as `departments'). Of course, under such a regime the champion rose grower is very likely to lose his status, but the effects will take some time to show. In the meanwhile, the costs will certainly come down.

In terms of science, the effects of targeting `excellence' in a focused way are that the departments labelled `excellent' will have strong economic pressures to define excellence as what they do. Thus new ideas from outside the `excellent' institutions may be dismissed as `irrelevant to the mainstream' or `not part of the core of the subject'. (These are of course quotations from actual reports.) There are many other instances.


It is claimed that increased money is being put into the Science Budget. This presumably means the allocation to Research Councils. There is no mention of the money that is being taken out through the progressive decline in funding in Universities. Are these figures given to Science Advisors?

As Alun Michael charmingly put it in reply to Save British Science: `The highest priority ... allows us to reduce the efficiency gains to 1%.'

We are in a situation where the last Government and this one have over a period of 20 years determined that:
(a) the expansion of University education should be subsidised by indefinitely declining relative pay levels for academic staff;
(b) Higher Education, and particularly the Science Research base in Universities, is and will be an important contributing factor in wealth creation;
(c) those contributing in this way will never receive any direct benefit from any wealth they so create;
(d) the support for this contribution will decline for the indefinite future by a rate of at least 1% per annum;
(e) increased attention will be given to norms of `quality', at the penalty of even greater cuts in support;
(f) research norms will be jacked up every Research Assessment Exercise, and the funding reward will be progressively cut;
(g) academics will increasingly be required to be internationally competitive in their research, whatever the support of the international competition in terms of facilities, prospects, salaries, and work loads;
(h) no effort will made to obtain and study comparisons with regard to (g).

Wealth Creation

This is an area which is regarded by Government as an important function of Universities, though curiously it does not usually form part of the Objects in their Charters (autres tempes, autres mores ?). Perhaps this is something the Charity Commissioners should look at.

The analogy is of the rich family in their castle asking the poor craftsmen at the gate for help outside normal working hours in building an extension to the castle. Two indications of the great importance attached to this extension by the family are:
(i) funds have been allocated so that the craftsmen may prepare detailed submissions for bids against each other for funding for extra labour and the most appropriate and up to date tools for the job, and maybe 20% will succeed; and
(ii) the highest priority will be given, within the planned family budget, to reduce the indefinitely projected overall rent increases of the craftsmen from 3% to 1% per annum, in real terms.


I am afraid I have no solution to the funding problem. Members of the `science policy community' should have answers to University staff who would like to see those who train the next generation and build the foundations for innovation and creativity to have some prospects of appropriate support and rewards for this service. Derek Roberts writes: `[the pay issue] puts at risk the very health of the nation with which we are supposed to be concerned.' It is startling that this issue of your journal makes only this attempt to assess the damage that has occurred to the confidence of academic scientists and in fact of all University staff through continually decreased HE funding, leading to increased workloads and ever decreasing support for clerical, administrative and technical work.

The `fin de siecle sense of dismay and decadence' referred to as not existing in the science policy community is widespread among scientists in Universities, and justifiably so.

Your sincerely

Ronnie Brown

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