The report is widely seen as a blueprint for reorganizing research funding throughout the sciences. It calls for a three-tiered university system, with expensive research equipment concentrated in top-level universities and little or no opportunity for research in the lower two levels.
At present all 36 university departments in geology and geophysics can try, in principle, to conduct world-class research in various topics. But the report, from a group led by University of Cambridge geologist Ron Oxburgh, argues that this approach spreads the available funds and equipment too thin.
The report says most money should go to 10 or so "level one" centers that would be expected to compete with large departments overseas, especially in the United States. Each would have as many as 30 scientists, so 300 of the current 570 earth sciences faculty in the United Kingdom might hope to find a place in the new elite. The rest would remain in "level two" universities, able to teach undergraduates and master's degree students and conduct some research, or "level three" institutions, restricted to introductory undergraduate teaching. Funds for new equipment would be severely restricted at level two, and non-existent at level three.
The report, which the UGC is expected to act on this month, has drawn a mixed response from the geological community, which has been invited to draw up its own funding plans. "The report tries to put in the hands of the community the shape of the subject over the next couple of decades," Oxburgh explained.
But staff in smaller institutions are wary of the plan. Michael House of Hull University said the report did not suggest how staff would be moved from small to large institutions to create level one centers of sufficient size. "This is a major hurdle to be overcome before any of the proposals can be mooted," he warned.
Significantly, the Oxburgh report is seen as an instructive precedent by science policy advisers who normally take a big-is-beautiful approach to university research. Sir David Phillips of Oxford University, chairman of the influential Advisory Board for the Research Councils, said, "I think this kind of analysis will hold for a number of subjects—certainly chemistry, probably physics, engineering and some parts of biology."
The advisory board this summer is expected to endorse the Oxburgh approach and call for creation of a top band of research universities in the experimental sciences. These universities would play host to university research centers.
The earth sciences report also urges that large departments be given a greater range of equipment and the support staff to maintain it. Researchers at small departments, it suggests, will eventually be limited to work "which is largely theoretical or based on field observation, or which must be carried out on sophisticated equipment based elsewhere."