The Science and Technology Committee has decided to hold an inquiry into the international policies and activities of the Research Councils.
The RAS response appears in bold italics after each of the issues raised in the committee’s call for evidence.
The inquiry will focus upon the effectiveness of the Research Councils’ and OSI’s international policies, particularly in respect of:
UK research in astronomy and solar system science is heavily dependent on access to data collected by international scientific projects including ground-based observatories and space missions. The great strength of this mechanism is that it gives UK scientists access to the best data in the world – and is realistically the only mechanism available for large projects. Its weakness has long been the limited funding available for internal UK activities that support our involvement in these projects. The recent (2005) International Review of UK Physics and Astronomy identified this as an important issue and strongly recommended “that the funding agencies maintain a healthy balance between the large investments in international facilities and funds spent nationally for exploitation of these opportunities through experiment development and data analysis programmes.” It is important that Research Councils and OSI have the financial capability to maintain that balance, especially when faced by short-term financial pressures.
Some international projects are based on agreements established via international scientific organisations rather than between funding agencies. A good example is the international system of data exchange (“World Data Centres”) established 50 years ago under the auspices of the International Council of Scientific Unions. This is an older, more informal, model of international collaboration and one that was particularly valuable in the Cold War era. However, it leaves these projects at greater financial risk than projects that are subject of modern legal agreements between funding agencies. It is important to ensure that project reviews are aware of this older collaboration model and give consideration on how it can be best carried forward into the future (should the collaboration continue, should it be made more formal, can it successfully carry on using the old model?).
UK participation in FP7 depends on two key factors:
1. the detailed content of the FP7 Work Programmes and Calls for Proposals, which are reviewed at least annually. It is important that OSI and the Research Councils raise scientific community awareness of the need to lobby on the content of these documents, e.g. through personal contacts with the Commission and other players.
2. EU financial requirements on co-funding of proposals and on overhead costs. The details depend on the nature of the organisation and of the particular FP7 programme. But in many cases, universities and public sector research institutes must find 25% of FP7 project funding from other sources. So it is important that Research Councils have the vision and means to help researchers find that 25%.
International collaboration in astronomy and geophysics is predominantly supported by the Research Councils. However, we note that FCO has played a valuable role by providing travel funds to stimulate international scientific collaboration at the level of individual scientists.
The UK faces a growing crisis through its failure to establish a decent career structure for young professional scientists. Recent reforms, especially increased stipends, have improved the position of PhD students, but the status (salaries, job security and support for career development) of young scientists in the years immediately after their PhD is unsatisfactory. This was recognised in both the 2000 and 2005 International Reviews of UK Physics and Astronomy. The effect is to encourage many home-grown young scientists to leave the UK and pursue their careers in more supportive environments. This is partly balanced by an inflow of young scientists from other countries – but these may be able to command higher salaries because they usually have greater experience (their PhD courses are longer and provide more training). Thus current policies may be said to encourage international mobility but in an unplanned and unintended way and one which may be to the detriment of the UK skills base in the longer term. While it is important that the UK benefits from the inflow of foreign talent, and that UK researchers gain overseas experience, this should be a planned strategy and not the bye-product of an inadequate career structure.
In considering Research Council effectiveness in collaboration via European Union-led research programmes, the Committee is interested in receiving evidence demonstrating benefits and drawbacks of Research Council participation in previous and current Framework Programmes. The Committee is also interested in receiving evidence on the role and success of Research Council support for facilitation of UK participation in previous and current international programmes.
The Committee would welcome written evidence from interested organisations and individuals addressing these points by Monday 16 April 2007.
Mike Hapgood, 4 April 2007.