Guest Editorial


Laying foundations for success

Martin Rees

Lord Martin Rees OM FRS is an astrophysicist and cosmologist, and the UK’s Astronomer Royal. He is based at the University of Cambridge where he has been Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Institute of Astronomy. He is a Fellow, and former Master, of Trinity College, Cambridge. In 2005, he was appointed to the House of Lords, and he was President of the Royal Society from 2005 to 2010.

Science in the UK has been subject to unprecedented pressures over recent years, from political and economic stresses. The research landscape is changing too and may change further after the completion of the Nurse Review. Here, the Astronomer Royal focusses on two aspects of the research landscape: education and the international dimension.

Last year, two prime ministers were flung from office. The current incumbent, Rishi Sunak, is striving to restore stability to a divided and discredited party. Ideally, crucial sectors like education and R&D should be governed by a bipartisan consensus that offers long-term stability. In depressing contrast, turbulence within Government has triggered unstable policies and a rapid ‘churn’ of ministers. Two new Departments were recently set up – one for climate and energy, the other for science and innovation – covering portfolios that previously fell in the remit of one cumbersome ministry, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Some hope that, with two cabinet ministers fighting its corner, science will have a stronger voice in dealing with the Treasury. At the moment things do not look good; the overall funding of the sector is being squeezed.

Such reorganisations of Departmental boundaries are not in themselves big deals. Apart from the key Departments of State – Treasury, Foreign Office and Home Office, the others are frequently revamped, seldom with evidence of an improvement that outweighs the disruption.

But more relevant than the ministerial reshuffles are changes below the political level. Some five years ago, the Government followed the advice of Paul Nurse, who advocated a merger of six Research Councils (and three other bodies) into a single conglomerate, UKRI. The jury is still out on whether this was a good move, or just an extra layer of bureaucracy.


There has been long-term consistency in a single ministry for education – though it cannot be currently deemed a success. Attainment levels in our schools are poor compared to those of nations in the Far East and Northern Europe.

In particular, there are too few good science teachers to ensure that every pupil engages with one. Young children display enthusiasm and curiosity – often focussed on dinosaurs and the cosmos (blazingly irrelevant to their lives, but fascinating). Yet all too often they are denied the inspirational teaching that could build on this enthusiasm. In consequence, a substantial fraction are ‘turned off’ science, drop it at 16 and forgo any chance to qualify for the most prestigious university courses. Despite many initiatives, substantial improvements will be slow.

There are three things that can be done: ensure that conditions are good enough to retain excellent teachers, with pay levels appropriate for practitioners of a serious profession;

encourage mature individuals into teaching from a career in research, industry or the armed forces; and, thirdly, make better use of the web and of distance learning.

At the university level, our international rankings are higher. However, there is a systemic weakness in UK Higher Education: the missions of our universities are not sufficiently varied. They all aspire to rise in the same league table. Most of their students are between 18 and 21 – undergoing three years of full-time (generally residential) education and studying a curriculum that is too narrow, even for the minority who aspire to professional or academic careers.

Worse, the school curriculum is too narrow as well. The campaign for an international baccalaureate-style curriculum for 16 to 18 year-olds needs a more positive response by universities, whose current entrance requirements disfavour applicants who straddle science and humanities.

Moreover, students who realise that the degree course they embarked on is not the right one for them or who have personal hardship, should be enabled to leave early with dignity, with a certificate to mark what they have accomplished. They should not be dismissed as ‘wastage’ – they should be able to make the positive claim: “I had two years of college.” Those running universities should not be berated for taking risks in admissions, nor pressured to entice students to stay, least of all by lowering degree standards.

More important, everyone should have the opportunity to re-enter Higher Education – maybe part-time or online – at any stage of their lives. This path could become smoother (indeed routine) if there were a formalised system of transferable credits across the whole system of Further and Higher Education.

The Government has proposed a ‘Life-long Entitlement’ to three years’ support, to be taken ‘a la carte’ at any stage in life. If on a sufficient scale, this could give those who did not complete an undergraduate course when young an entitlement to return and ‘upgrade’ later.

It will be a long slog to ensure that high-quality teaching at school is available across the full geographical and social spectrum – and it may be impossible until there is a narrowing of the gulf between the resources of private, fee-taking schools and those in the state system. In the meantime, it would send an encouraging signal if UK universities (whose entry bar is often dauntingly high) were to reserve a fraction of their places for students who do not come straight from school.

In this way, they could offer a second chance to those who were disadvantaged at 18, but have caught up by earning two years’ worth of credits at other institutions (or online), maybe via the Open University. Such students could then advance to degree-level in two further years. I would like to see such a reform at my university.

The Covid crisis has given us experience of online and remote teaching: we can make a more realistic assessment of the most effective format for ‘contact’ hours with students. Purely online courses, the so-called MOOCs, have had an ambivalent reception. As stand-alone courses without complementary contacts with a real tutor, they are probably only satisfactory for Masters-level vocational courses intended for motivated mature learners studying part-time. Yet they can have wider benefits as part of a ‘package’ that incorporates ‘live’ tutoring as well.

The international scene

Higher Education is one of the most international segments of UK society – at both student and faculty level. Yet our ability to attract and retain mobile academic talent is now at risk.

To retain its international competitiveness as a destination of choice for mobile faculty despite the setback of Brexit, the UK must raise its game. There is now an international market for the best students as well: they are academic assets, and a long-term investment in international relations.

Concerns have been voiced about accepting students from countries that are deemed to be potentially hostile. I think these concerns are overplayed. The quality and volume of Chinese research is now so high that we could lose as much as we gain by inhibiting exchanges. Moreover – and this is admittedly more controversial – I believe we should maintain contacts with, for instance, Iran. There have been, in the past, refusals to admit Iranian students for courses such as nuclear physics. As these students will learn nuclear physics somewhere, whatever barriers the US and UK impose, it is surely better that they should in their studies make contacts here, and retain them. This will decrease the chance that clandestine programmes can proceed without someone in our country becoming aware of them.

There was an enlightening instance of such benefits during the multinational talks in 2015 aiming to restrain Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. The Iranian minister for atomic energy, Ali Akbar Salehi, asked the US negotiating team to include Ernie Moniz – a distinguished physicist who was then the US Secretary for Energy. These two men knew and trusted each other through having studied at MIT at the same time.

The university sector must not be sclerotic and unresponsive to changes in needs, lifestyle and opportunities. Yet sadly, the UK, traditionally a magnet foreign talent, has lost its allure.

An especially worrying fall-out from Brexit has been the jeopardising of UK participation in the Horizon science programme. This is damaging to the entire European community because there is so much collaboration. Now that there has been progress in unlocking the stand-off over Northern Ireland, we must hope that there is no further vacillation and that our Government views rejoining European scientific collaborations as an urgent priority.

It has indeed been fortunate that CERN, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) – covering particle physics, space science and astronomy respectively – are bodies that are separate from the EU and through which the UK is still able to engage and collaborate.

The Nurse Review

The Review of the Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape was announced in July 2021 in the UK Innovation Strategy. This independent review was led by Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive and Director of the Francis Crick Institute.

The review examined the mix of UK organisations performing Research, Development and Innovation, with recommendations to make the most of the UK's research organisational landscape, ensuring it is effective, sustainable and responsive to global challenges.

The review’s findings and recommendations aim to ensure that UK science can go from strength to strength, driving long term sustainable growth, productivity, and prosperity, delivering tangible improvements to the lives of communities across the country, and ensuring that we remain internationally competitive in the years to come.