A Welsh Affair

Today I had the “pleasure” of attending a day-long conference called Funding, Risk and Innovation: Wales’s Engagement with Science Policy organized by the Institute of Welsh Affairs and sponsored by, amongst other organizations, the Institute of Physics. I had hoped that this would give me an insight into the landscape of Welsh science politics which might bear fruit in the future. As if.

Unfortunately, but alas predictably, there wasn’t much of interest. I think the first presentation of the day perfectly  illustrated the whole problem. Opening the batting was Ieuan Wyn Jones, Deputy First Minister and Minister for Economic Development, from the Welsh Assembly Government or WAG.  He gave a motherhood-and-apple-pie talk about how important science was to the future of Wales, took a few questions and then left. Those of us scientists who had gone to the meeting hoping for engagement between  politicians and scientists were left to discuss things between ourselves. Hardly the point.

Next was Phil Gummett, Chief Executive of HEFCW who gave the results of the latest Research Assessment Exercise (which I’ve blogged about here, there and everywhere). To my dismay he announced that HEFCW are indeed going to use the 0:1:3:7 weighting formula adopted by HEFCE, but has found a bit more cash which it will add to the pot of money allocated to 4*. However, unlike in the case of English universities, HEFCW is not going to apply any protection to STEM subjects (Science, Technology & Medicine). In the case of my own department at Cardiff University, which got a very low assessment  of 4* research, this is very bad news.

When I got home this evening I read the same news in the Times Higher. I could have found this out without wasting a day sitting  in a ghastly conference room in the soulless Cardiff Novotel. Still, the lunch wasn’t bad.

Phil Gummett struck me as quite a reasonable chap who is trying to do the right thing, but whose hands are tied by the Welsh Assembly which has decided that Higher Education in Wales is not as high a priority as Further Education, with the result that the funds available to HEFCW for research is less than it would be for English universities. University STEM departments in Wales altogether receive about £10M less from HEFCW than they would get from HEFCE if they were in England. For physics, this will probably get worse after the 2008 RAE.

The reason for this pessimism is that, as I’ve noted before, Physics did rather badly in the RAE compared to other discplines, with a significantly lower fraction of work assessed at 4* (world-leading). Since the funding formula is heavily weighted by the 4* element, physics will suffer relative to other disciplines. HEFCW will not attempt to correct this. I think the Chair of the Physics panel, Sir John Pendry, must shoulder at least some of the blame for the gross anomaly that this represents.

It remains to be seen what happens to physics nationally, but I fear the RAE may undo a decade of very effective positive campaigning about the importance of physics. I’ve already heard from various Heads of Physics departments around the country (even those who have done well in the RAE)  who have been asked by their Vice-Chancellors why they have done so much worse than other disciplines.

The final thing he said was that HEFCW would make its allocations as block grants to the Universities concerned and that they should make their own decisions as to how to allocate the funds to the departments. This sort of thing always annoys me. It’s admitting that the formula is probably stupid, so passing the buck to the institutions to sort out the mess themselves.

I spoke to a nice lady from Cardiff University’s planning department in the afternoon who said that they weren’t sure how they were going to allocate funds to Schools after the HEFCW grant was announced, and that the University as a whole was probably going to lose out in research funds, despite having 54% of all the 4* research in Wales.

The big problem is the funding gap caused by the WAG’s policy. Devolution has had a negative effect in science funding in Wales, while in Scotland it has had the opposite effect. The Scottish parliament seems much more interested in science than does the Welsh Assembly. Indeed, per capita, Scottish Universities have a much heavier level of research investment even than those in England, which in turn are much higher than in Wales.

EPSRC‘ recently allocated £82M to UK universities to fund  doctoral training centres. In all, it allocated grants to 45 universities. Wales has 5% of the UK population, but not a single grant went to a Welsh university. Of the 1200 or so students these centres will train, not a single one will be in Wales.  I can’t believe the Scottish assembly would have let such an outcome happen in Scotland.

Further strangulation of research funds is inevitable unless the WAG is persuaded to change its mind about the importance of science. But if the politicians don’t stay to listen to the arguments, how will this happen?

Over lunch I chatted to various physicists from Swansea University. Several of them had come to the meeting, but I was the only representative from Cardiff. There was a strong steer from the RAE panel for physics in terms of closer collaboration so we chatted a bit about possibilities for that. I think the consensus was that we’re probably going to be bounced down the road anyway so the best way forward would be to come up with a plan of our own instead of having someone else’s.

I promise not to mention the RAE again, until the final allocations are published in April!

5 Responses to “A Welsh Affair”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I only contribute comments to blogs very rarely, but you tend to cover a whole range of issues of specific interest to me, so this is my response to your posting about science policy in Wales. Forgive the broad, lengthy response.

    The HEFCW and HEFCE decision about the 0:1:3:7 weighting formula for research funding is unfortunate: funding will be very strongly determined by the fraction of very high quality research. That there is no attempt at normalisation between units of assessment (physics against chemistry against history etc.) surprises me, and it will hit physics + astronomy, as you wrote. This raises issues of calibration within each unit, and how much the panel members were aware of this. I do not believe there is any significant difference between in the quality of research in U.K. physics (+ astronomy) compared with chemistry for example, and so the lower Research Assessment Exercise results for physics will damage physics funding. Surely the panels would have been fully aware of this danger?

    Ieuan Wyn Jones, as the Minister for Economic Development in Wales (as well as Deputy First Minister), will primarily be interested in the economic impact of industrially-relevant applied science. That is his brief. I would expect academic science to be the responsibility of the Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, Jane Hutt. That I am not absolutely clear about which minister has responsibility for basic science indicates perhaps that science has not been given full consideration by the Welsh Assembly Government to date, as you suggested. Responsibility for this neglect should be shared by Government itself, by the Assembly more broadly for not scrutinising more, and by the scientific community in Wales for failing to lobby coherently.

    (Incidentally, Jane Hutt may have been otherwise engaged yesterday. I travelled to North Wales by train last night, and changed trains in Bangor to catch one from Cardiff. There was a school party on board, with the pupils aged about ten years, and a teacher spoke to them about their trip. It was clear that they had been on a trip to the National Assembly and that they had met Jane Hutt there.)

    I believe that there has been a lack of discussion of science policy in Wales, including lobbying activities, in recent times and historically. This was true of the old days before 1999 when Wales was administered (including university policy) by the Secretary of State for Wales, and to some extent since 1999 when the Assembly took over responsibility. Of course, the British Government has responsibility for much science policy, including the research councils, but university policy has been devolved to Wales for decades (democratically to the Assembly since 1999, and administratively to the Welsh Office for years before that).

    Civic society in Wales was historically weak, apart from local government and trade unions. People before 1999 tended to see government in general as being remote and largely beyond influence. Matters have improved since then, with many organisations and interest groups setting up offices in Cardiff to interact with the Assembly. Think tanks like the Institute for Welsh Affairs (and to a lesser extent the Bevan Foundation in social policy) have found an important role. The Campaign for Science and Engineering has carried out some specifically Welsh science lobbying. CASE advocated that the Assembly Government appoint a Chief Scientist or Chief Scientific Adviser, to give science a higher profile within Welsh government, but I am not aware of progress in this direction. The Institute of Physics has a Welsh branch, and more Wales-based organisation of scientists would help in terms of advocacy. The involvement of the IWA and the IoP in your meeting is encouraging.

    The reorganisation of the university sector in Wales over the past several years received very little public debate, something that greatly surprised me. The changes saw the creation of Cardiff University, the loss of the Welsh National College of Medicine as an all-Wales institution, attempts at regional mergers of institutions, and the weakening of all-Wales coordination through the University of Wales. The implications are profound, but there was relatively little public discussion. That is odd.

    Research council funding in Wales was always surprisingly low compared with England or Scotland. This was true in terms of research grant income (presumably reflecting quality weaknesses) and through the minimal number of research council institutes located in Wales. (A rumour was in circulation in England about a decade ago that PPARC was aware of this funding imbalance and that PPARC came to the view that the establishment of an astronomical instrumentation group in Cardiff could help to rectify this. It is just a rumour.)

    We need to be careful not to think that support for further education in Wales is more generous than that for higher education. There are similar long-standing issues about the underfunding of further education in Wales as there are in England. Indeed, the Plaid Cymru education spokesperson recently resigned her post because of cuts in further education being imposed by the coalition administration. Equally, there are long-standing problems in Wales with university funding. There were claims in the 1995-1997 period that William Hague, the Secretary of State for Wales, took considerable sums of money from the higher education budget to fund the ill-fated LG semiconductor development in Newport. More recently, more generous support of students than in England means less money going into Welsh universities directly, including into academic science: that money is instead being paid to students for reasons of social inclusion. This policy may be reversed within the next several months.

    Perhaps a problem in Wales, as across Britain generally, is that there tends to be little involvement of scientists in elected politics. We should expect that there will be relatively little direct experience of academic science among the 60 representatives elected to the National Assembly. However, standing in contradiction to this is the fact that the Assembly in its first term had both Phil Williams (a significant name in space plasmas and upper atmosphere physics) and John Marek (an applied mathematician who had worked on general relativity). It also included a few medical practitioners.

    Fundamentally, scientists in Wales need to make more contact with their elected representatives, at National Assembly, House of Commons and local government levels. They need to lobby effectively to make their representatives understand better the importance and needs of science. This is also true of scientists across Britain more widely, and probably across the world.

    There is a lot of work to be done to create a culture of public discussion of science and university policy in Wales. With effort, this will come in future years. Wales will then become a more normal civic society where policy is debated by people with particular experience and who will engage with government. This is part of the evolution from a passive, governed society to one that is more properly democratic. Unfortunately, the Welsh scientific community has been rather slow in this respect.

  2. Steve Eales Says:

    Very interesting comments from you both. As Bryn points out, the issue of FE verses HE funding in Wales is not trivial. As it happens, I work in Cardiff University and my wife works 50 yards down the road in Coleg Glan Hafren, an FE institution. While our buildings are modern to pleasant to work in, the FE buildings are atrocious, and the college has juts been hit by a spending cut, which has led to a large number of voluntary redundancies. Within the FE sector, the money appears to be going to vocational training rather than the academic route, such as A-levels. This is hard to argue against, on social grounds, although my second-hand perception is that a large amount of money is wasted on iniitiatives, which have good motives but ultimately don’t seem to work very well. The Welsh Bac may fall in this categry.

    I think Bryn makes two really good points. First, there is not a recent history of civic governance in Wales. While Wales was governed from the concrete bunker of the Welsh Office, the public attitude seemed to be ‘WE can’t do anything about it, so let the bastards get on with it’. Now at least there is at least the possibility of some kind of informed debate between people and politicians at the Welsh level. The second point is that it IS really important for scientists to try to engage with the political establishment. I tlhought, for about five seconds, about attending the meeting about Welsh science and technology – and then didn’t go. Welll done to Peter for doing this.

  3. Haley Gomez Says:

    Peter, I too thought about going to this meeting but have done various things like this in the past and found them exactly as you have described – actually in some cases, these days have felt a little soul-destroying. After the politician has given their talk (if they even turn up and yes that’s happened before), they disappear (well they are very busy) and the (very enthused, chatty and interested) scientists are left to talk amongst ourselves. One very high profile event I went to in London consisted of all the politicians and journalists queuing up for a glimpse of the astronomer-for-one-second (but annoyingly attractive) Mylene Klass. Not one came to speak to me: a real astronomer (jealous, moi?). Actually, I did manage to grab some politician (south-west region) and he asked me where the stars ‘went’ in the daytime. When I tried to explain what stars were, he looked at me as if I was a complete nutcase and walked away. Maybe that saying more about my science communication than the MP…. Thanks for going though and flying the Cardiff flag, we do appreciate it!

    Regarding the RAE discusson, in my position, I find all this stuff very worrying but I’m very glad I can read this blog, it makes feel a bit less alone.

  4. […] think I’ve made it clear (here, here, here, here and here) that I think the RAE was a bit of a botch generally and that Physics […]

  5. […] Over a year ago I went to a meeting about Science Policy in Wales. One of the issues raised at that meeting was that the Welsh Assembly Government hadn’t yet managed to appoint a Chief Scientific Advisor, despite the results of a review in carried out in 2008 by Sir Christopher Pollock that argued strongly that this should be done. In June 2009, the (new) First Minister Carwyn Jones finally announced that he would proceed with an appointment to this new position but it’s still taken quite a while to get someone to fill the post. […]

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