Soft money, hard battles in the lab

October 3, 1997

In our fourth and final article on the big issues in the Dearing debate Sir Arnold Wolfendale makes a plea for research that pushes back the frontiers of knowledge.

In Sir Ron Dearing's foreword to the report of his committee on higher education in the learning society one reads that the long-term well-being of higher education should not be damaged by the needs of the short term. In the same foreword one also reads that the committee was concerned about some other immediate needs, especially in relation to research. Here we have the nub of matters with regard to research: the crying need for more support now but at the same time the need to get away from short-termism with regard to research objectives.

Of course, research is regarded by everyone as a good thing, at least if it is of high quality, and particularly with today's emphasis on wealth creation, but the pendulum has swung too far towards applied rather than basic research. The government's forthcoming white paper must rectify this.

Inspection of the terms of reference for the Dearing review confirmed my fears about the possible treatment of basic research. Although the principle of maintaining and enhancing higher education's contributions to basic, strategic and applied research was referred to in the preamble, elsewhere, in the famous Appendix A, emphasis was on industry's needs and the benefits for our international competitiveness.

Nowhere was our role in generating knowledge for its own sake referred to; nor were the frequent later applications which often come from blue-skies research. It was thus a pleasure to find mention in the main report of the role of higher education in adding to the world's store of knowledge and of fostering culture for its own sake I Three cheers for Dearing et al. The white paper must surely take notice of this.

Not only basic research but all research and scholarship in higher education is in a parlous state, particularly in terms of infrastructure. Unless more funds are injected, everything will continue its downward slide. Of course, industry will help with short-term injections for short-term return but this is no basis for long-term health. Dearing recognises this and thinks there is a strong case for increasing the level of funding. That is a must.

Having said that, the role of research in higher education institutions in training postgraduates needs further analysis, and this relates to research in general, not just scientific research. The increase in researchers in temporary posts, on soft or contract money, is a worrying feature of contemporary institutions. Almost invariably these researchers are hoping for permanent appointments but few will succeed. We need to change the whole ethos of research, and this the white paper must address.

Doctoral and postdoctoral work should be regarded by most researchers as a stepping stone to a post outside higher education. If this were a recognised route I suspect we should find more graduates staying on to do research rather than fewer. Education is needed for employers here, too, so that they cooperate in ensuring that talented 30-year-olds who have had their in-depth training in higher education are welcomed. A fraction will continue to wish to make a career in higher education, and they should be helped to do so, but they should be the exception rather than the norm. My recommendation is by no means a plea for research to be applied, or relevant or whatever. I have in mind much basic, exciting and stimulating work so that the practitioners can have the opportunity for a few years of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. It is surely possible to devise incentives which will enable this. The growing need for a scientifically literate and numerate adult population surely means that there must be no disincentives to institutions to support the teaching of science and mathematics in higher education. Proper allowance must be made for the cost of laboratory equipment and technicians and encouragement should be given to students to specialise in these subjects. In view of the shortage of good science teachers, financial inducements should be offered to those students who undertake to teach for at least a period of, say, three years.

The bottom line in all this is that more funds are needed by the academic sector and the government must be the main provider. This conclusion shines through in the Dearing report. There can be no case for the new government continuing to hide behind the previous government's spending plans - Labour was not elected simply to preserve the status quo. This brings us back to the beginning: the long-term well-being of higher education should not be damaged by the needs of the short term. The interpretation of the needs of the short term in this context is electoral popularity. With such a huge parliamentary majority, a spell of electoral unpopularity, in the short term, would not be too worrying.

Sir Arnold Wolfendale is former astronomer-royal and emeritus professor of physics at the University of Durham.

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