Loans risk to pure science

August 1, 1997

Britain's pure science base could be eroded if a move from grants to loans leads students to choose courses more directly related to employment, a member of the Dearing inquiry committee said this week, writes Julia Hinde.

Sir Ron Oxburgh, rector of Imperial College, told the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology that the move from grants to loans in the United States had not led to a narrowing in participation, but rather to students choosing subjects more directly related to employment. There was a shift to some more applied sciences, but away from purer sciences and the humanities.

"My concern is that our pure science base might possibly be eroded. That is something we would have to keep under pretty close scrutiny," he told the committee, which was hearing evidence from Sir Ron Dearing on the research aspect of his report.

Sir Ron Oxburgh elaborated on Dearing's recommendation for a new independent, private advisory body to oversee research policy and funding.

The proposed body should be located centrally in the Cabinet Office and chaired by a senior member of industry, he said.

Sir Ron Dearing defended the need for the body to be private, saying that the group should not be forced to publish.

"It should not be condemned to proceed through published reports which tend to slow down the way things happen as people meticulously strive to make sure that what they say stands up to public scrutiny," he said.

Lord Flowers, chancellor of Manchester University, expressed concern about any further transfer of money from the funding to the research councils and the future of distinguished researchers in departments that did not receive research assessment exercise funding.

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