Good news, bad news as Universities Week kicks off

Sector's successes celebrated amid warnings over a 'new academic ice age'. Paul Jump reports

June 17, 2010

Researchers have marked the UK's inaugural Universities Week with a celebration of research and warnings about the potentially devastating effects of government cuts.

The week of events celebrating higher education was kicked off with the launch of a Research Councils UK report, Impacts: People and Skills, which showcases the work of research council-funded academics.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, which organised Universities Week, told attendees at the launch event on 14 June that it is vital for researchers to speak up about the need to protect the ring fence for the science budget and the dual support system of funding research through block grants to universities and grants to individual research projects.

The government is set to unveil its emergency Budget next week and further cuts to higher education are feared, but Ms Dandridge said she had been heartened by recent statements in support of science by Vince Cable, the business secretary, and David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

"UK science is an unqualified success and there are not many sectors that can say this ... Any cuts will be undertaken at our peril because it is through investment in research that we can protect economic growth," she said.

Her warnings were echoed by prominent UK business leaders in a letter to The Times this week, which said that universities generate £59 billion a year for the British economy.

Ms Dandridge said that Universities Week aimed to raise public awareness of universities' research and business engagement following a survey that indicated that 10 per cent of the British public think that universities contribute nothing to the economy.

Robin Osborne, chair of the Council of University Classical Departments, said that the expected scarcity of university posts becoming available in the next five years, especially in the humanities, should "concentrate the minds" of the research councils on how they award funds.

"Grants should be awarded on the basis of the quality of the individual project. But if you have a whole generation of researchers who could contribute but for whom there are no jobs, we are heading for a problem," he said.

Rick Rylance, RCUK's champion for research careers, said that if the sector enters a "new academic ice age", it will be important for the research councils to make sure capacity is maintained, particularly in the humanities.

"We grieve for the future of the generation (of researchers) emerging if it is lost. The trick will be to catch as many (of the researchers) as possible," he said.

Martyn Poliakoff, research professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham, added a warning against a hiatus in research funding, suggesting that it would be "almost impossible" to build up the same capacity again in the future.

He also urged funding bodies to acknowledge the impact of training researchers, especially in sectors such as the energy industry where there is a national shortage.

"Even if the research doesn't work, if you have trained a researcher it has been a valuable exercise," Professor Poliakoff said.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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