Minister admits funding shortfall

October 20, 2006

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury admitted this week that government support for science departments was insufficient, but said funding chiefs would not consider changing it until at least next year.

Lord Sainsbury came under fire from the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on Wednesday over the recent rash of department closures in the physical sciences.

Last week, a meeting of Reading University’s senate agreed that physics would have to be axed due to financial problems, despite heated opposition from academics and students.

Lord Sainsbury told the committee that there was a "real issue" with the teaching funding for science and the answer to saving struggling departments lay partly in getting that right.

He said: "My own guess is that Set [science, engineering and technology] subject teaching is underfunded. If you don’t have good research money, [and you are] running a chemistry department on the teaching allocation alone, [the department] will not survive and that is why you have closures."

But when pressed about when universities could expect to see some change he angered MPs by failing to offer any fast solutions.

He said: "The Higher Education Funding Council for England is talking in terms of having better information in 2007 about this. Then it is really a question of what that [information] shows and what they can do."

After the meeting, committee chair Phil Willis said: "What we will see is a systematic decline of science departments over the next 18 months to two years as a result of dithering by the Government over the funding formula."

Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee, told Lord Sainsbury: "I don’t understand why the Government isn’t being more proactive and quicker in responding to employers’ demand for science, technology, engineering and maths subjects."

Lord Sainsbury insisted that it would be inappropriate to encourage students to study core science subjects. "We live in a free society and we cannot tell students to do particular subjects."

One third of university physics courses have been axed in the past 12 years. There have also been high-profile chemistry closures at Exeter University, Queen Mary, University of London, King’s College London and Swansea University.

Earlier this year, Sussex University was forced to rescind the decision to close its chemistry department after an international outcry.


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