Archive for Institute of Welsh Affairs

A Welsh Affair

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on February 26, 2009 by telescoper

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!