BSPP News 31 Autumn 1997 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 31, Autumn 1997

On Reading the Dearing Report...

I feel quite cheerful. The Dearing Report, which prepares the ground for possibly the greatest changes in UK Higher Education for over thirty years, may deal in what is politically possible, but it shows both vision and values. I had not expected this.

The authors identify four aims early on, from which I quote: `inspire ... individual'; `increase knowledge and understanding for their own sake'; `serve ... an adaptable, sustainable ... economy'; and `shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society'. This is not the language of the rabid right (nor even the loony left, but that has been less of a fear lately!) However, there can be many potholes on the road to utopia, and small things may not be noticed. So how might the Dearing vision affect Plant Pathology, and will it be a good thing?

The ideals of the introduction seem sometimes to get lost as the commission discusses how to organise this vast industry: teaching outcomes are described everywhere as `skills'. I see how this happened what else can you measure? but it frightens me. Is integrity about data a skill? Are curiosity and wonder skills?

A theme of the report is that teaching should be better. That is one reason why students should pay fees, it is said: they will insist on good teaching. Dearing asks that good teaching should be rewarded with promotion, money and acclaim, like good research. How could one disagree? But the route suggested is to establish a `Professional Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education', and the report uses the ominous phrase `accrediting achievement in the management ... (my italics)'. It is always useful to have diversions for the powerhungry, but they should be harmless. Let's reward teaching: and find a way of measuring how much someone has inspired their students, not give up and reward management.

From the viewpoint of BSPP, what Dearing says about research is as important as what it says about teaching. It supports the retention of the dualsupport system, with changes departments can apply for a fixed rate, very low, scholarship support grant, or enter the RAE competition (and risk getting nothing, if they get 3a or lower...). Dearing suggests that dual support allows management of the `shortterm and unpredictable' nature of research council funding, and might allow universities to alleviate somewhat the plight of contract researchers. I hope so, but they may need pushing. Dearing also suggests that overheads on research council grants should be raised to 60% so competition will be fiercer. How will minor or unfashionable subjects survive? Maybe the society can have a role here, helping to keep a layer of `scholarship' in pathology going perhaps a microscope or an incubator for someone whose post is primarily teaching and therefore probably primarily teaching subjects much wider than plant pathology.

The Commission's comments on research postgraduate training seem to ignore many live issues. They are concerned, for example, that an MPhil should not be an option for a failed PhD, and that national standards for `transferable skills' training should be set. But they do not comment on the inadequate stipend that goes with a studentship, nor on the fact that no research costs are provided with a studentship.

A curious feature of the report was its elevation of information technology to an end in itself. Most of the report and its recommendations are admirably based in outcomes; and specific organisational suggestions are often carefully argued. Then suddenly we read that `by 2005 all students should have their own laptops'. Why? Doubtless they should also own ballpoint pens; but if they choose to use pencils or fountain pens, and succeed in the tasks they attempt, it hardly matters. Likewise, the committee describes as key skills `communication, oral and written, numeracy, the use of communications and information technology, and learning how to learn'. What is IT doing in that list? The others are ends; IT is a means. Indeed, the danger is perhaps more of people who cannot use paper indexes discarding the past than of people stumped by a PC on their desks.

But most of this is petty carping. Complaints about detail are easy to make. The important point is that the framework Dearing provides is for the most part reasonable and humane; and if such a framework exists, societies such as ours can see how they can help within it.

Michael Shaw,
University of Reading

Biologists' Science Priorities for an Incoming Government

The UK has a new governing party for the first time in 18 years. What - if anything - does this imply for science and scientists? The Institute of Biology held a forum for its 70 affiliated learned societies with the Government Chief Scientist, Sir Bob May. We reproduce the Institute's position paper on science priorities, followed by the impressions of Simon Archer, who attended the forum on behalf of BSPP.

1. Life sciences are at the heart of UK science's role "as fundamental to our future prosperity and quality of life". The understanding of living systems is central to agriculture, biomedicine and conserving the environment. This makes biology, and its specialisms, of direct and crucial relevance to the feeding, clothing and preservation of our population's health as well as enhancement of the bounty and beauty of our land.

2. The Institute of Biology, founded in 1950 and incorporated by Royal Charter in 1979, is the professional body for U.K. biologists. It has over 15,800 members, including some 1,500 Fellows, and furthermore can represent over 50,000 bioscientists via the membership of more than 70 learned societies affiliated to the Institute of Biology.

3. The Institute, and the learned societies that it represents, is concerned about the perceived decline over the past decade in the competitiveness and support of biological science in the U.K. It has therefore identified ten major priorities for a new government, based on extensive discussions and consultations with its membership. Namely:

• Improve the status of science in the U.K. government and recognise its importance in wealth creation in the long term: this will be furthered by a Cabinet level appointment of a Minister for Science and, if possible, more Ministers with science backgrounds.

• Support for research should remain stable, in real terms, and should not be subject to short term re-orientation for political objectives. This applies to Departmental and Ministry R&D funding as well as `Science Budget' funding.

• Restore and retain a balance of fundamental research and long-term strategic (i.e. mission orientated) research in universities and institutes. Although the "Science Budget" for fundamental research has increased in real terms over the past decade to 1994/5 this has been more than offset by the decrease in the total net Governmental R&D spend by Departments (a real term decline of over 16% over this time). Much of this Departmental R&D supports long-term strategic research and monitoring in institutes and Government research laboratories.

• Provide long-term career opportunities for our best scientists. At present too many good quality scientists are supported on sequential short term contracts, which account for over 40% of academic staff who have joined universities since 1993/4 compared with 5.3% of staff who were employed before 1990. Similar increases in the proportions of short-term contracted staff have also occurred in the research institutes . Levels of remuneration in universities and institutes should also be reviewed in relation to equivalent posts in the commercial sector. This is particularly important for young postdoctoral scientists.

• Find ways to reduce bureaucracy and paperwork for active scientists. Reviews, assessments and grant proposals are important exercises but consume too much time which could otherwise be spent on research; mechanisms should be streamlined.

• Ensure that mechanisms are in place, and financial assistance is available, for discoveries in university and institute laboratories to be identified rapidly and exploited. These mechanisms should not be at the expense of research in terms of time or money. At present the cost of patenting and developing discoveries may compete with spending on research.

• Provide up-graded equipment and facilities to allow our best groups to be genuinely competitive internationally. We are falling behind other countries in this respect.

• Support for international research and collaboration is important if U.K. scientists are to retain their high position in the international community. This includes participation in research programmes and support for large scale international facilities. For example biologists from the UK and other countries use the synchrotron facilities at Danesbury for molecular structure determination. Similarly UK biologists benefit greatly from UK involvement with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). The recent decision to re-join UNESCO (UN Environment, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is particularly welcome.

• Science education is important for the future generation of researchers and those involved with the life sciences and its technology at all levels. Support for science education at all levels should be increased and curricular teaching methods geared to attract the full range of students. University teaching should also receive increased support to ensure that the increased student numbers since the late 1980s do not affect either the quality of teaching or the quality and quantity of research..

• Increasing the public understanding is important, particularly in relation to the acceptance of new technologies. We welcome initiatives such as the SET7 week and the Edinburgh Science Festival. However much more needs to be done and the UK urgently needs to build on such foundations if in future years we are to become a truly scientifically literate nation.

The meeting started in the form of a short seminar with Sir Robert May responding to the bullet points put forward by the Institute of Biology as priorities for an incoming government (attached document). He came extremely well briefed and well supplied with acetates for overhead projection. Some of the more significant points are listed below.

1. Sir Robert emphasised that one of his roles was to ensure that people at the top level in government got the facts straight. He gave a resume of the role of the Office of Science and Technology (OST) within the remit of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and its subsequent moves elsewhere. Where should the OST reside? It is awkward within the Cabinet Office since its budget dwarfs that of the remainder. Conversely within the Dept. for Education it would be dwarfed itself. Maybe its position within the DTI, although much criticised, is the best compromise. On personnel he felt that Ian Taylor had been very effective (now of course in opposition), and pointed out that Margaret Beckett's first job was as a research assistant in metallurgy.

2. R & D as a percentage of GDP is broadly in line with that in the USA, Germany and Japan (c. 3%). Sweden leads the field at 3.3%. Over the last 10 years both defence and civil government R & D have declined in real terms. The science budget has gone up by 10%, but at the same time jobs have increased by 30%, postgraduate numbers by 50% and UG numbers by even more. So per scientist the amount of money in the system has materially declined.

The science base money per capita of the labour force in the UK is the lowest of all major countries. Accounted for by a much lower government spend. Funding from business, charities and overseas sources are all up with or ahead of the levels of comparable countries.

As a consequence of the above the UK is the most efficient user of science funding by some margin. Output per person is the highest in the world. This suggests there is no further scope for efficiency gains.

3. On the subject of contract research staff, Sir Robert did not see this as a problem per se, but management of the situation needs to be improved. Tenure tends to be later in life than formerly, and also later than in other countries. Meanwhile staff endure a period of "poor managed exploitation and insecurity". That staff are grossly underpaid is unarguable; a situation not helped by the artificial uniformity of remuneration.

4. On paragraph 8, Sir Robert strongly agreed. The UK is the clear leader in international collaboration. Thinking of Europe he said there was a great need to cut bureaucracy. Most collaborative ventures are only funded by diverting money from elsewhere (what scientists win on European contracts is largely money that would have gone to BBSRC and the like, if the Eu was not there). So any warm feelings that we may have about Britain rejoining UNESCO should be tempered by the knowledge that the subscription will come out of either the science or overseas aid budgets.

5. Questions from the floor followed. Some of the more interesting (at least to me) are detailed below.

i) Questioned initially on gender bias in science (in regard to tenure, grant success etc.) Sir Robert felt that this was not an issue in the UK, but it certainly was in some other countries (E. graminis. Sweden by a factor of 2.5) Nepotism certainly does exist (and by linkage may explain some gender bias), but this is partially explained by a policy of sticking with the tried and tested. Established scientists are likely to be "well connected" giving an appearance of "jobs for the boys".

ii) How to foster real innovation, even crankiness!? There is a danger that such people will be filtered out by safety first peer review. He felt that the foresight approach to attempt to identify new areas that will become ripe for future exploitation was a valuable initiative.

iii) When questioned on the collapse of the Agricultural Systems Directorate of the BBSRC, he could offer no information.

iv) He agreed strongly with a plea from the floor that a number of very long term experiments need continued support on the basis that you never know when they are going to be useful in a different context. Long-term plankton records and the Rothamsted grass plots are now seen as providing invaluable data for climate change research.

v) Sir Robert showed one data set that seemed to show a meteoric rise of science in Korea. He felt however that patents are a very poor guide to the health of science in a country. The UK is high in the citation lists of patent literature, but much lower in the ownership of patents. Patents make a very small contribution to the income of any University. Research organisations should certainly not rely on this source for salvation!

vi)When questioned on the disruption caused by constant reorganisation. Review and review again, Prior options etc., Sir Robert felt that this had been overdone, but nevertheless some creative disruption had been needed to prevent a self-perpetuating gerontocracy from becoming established. The research assessment exercise came high on his hit list of unnecessary disruption (Sir Robert has a reputation for blunt speaking: wind and bullshit were two of the more polite terms used at this point!).

vii) When questioned on output per worker, he stated that only in the UK is the line going upwards steeply. To some surprise and cynicism he revealed that the increase is largely in good journals with an improving citation index. From the audience there was some feeling that this represented established scientists clearing out a backlog of data which could not last. We shall see!

Simon Archer
Imperial College, London