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UK heritage science ‘risks losing experts’

The science of preserving the UK’s cultural heritage sector risks losing know-how as senior researchers take early retirement, a House of Lords committee has been told.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s joint Science Heritage Programme raised the warning in its written evidence to the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into heritage science.

The inquiry is a follow-up to a 2006 report, which said that the UK’s impressive standing in the area was “under threat, the sector fragmented and under-valued”.

The AHRC/EPSRC programme was launched in 2007 to address concerns raised in the original report. It has invested £7.6 million, but is due to end in December 2013. In their submission, programme representatives describe the scheme as successful and say there has been a “substantial uplift in funding for heritage science research” in the past five years.

However, they add, two key concerns need to be considered. One is a potential loss of expertise, as there is evidence that researchers in the field are taking early retirement. To prevent this, employers could “choose not to accept early retirement or to suggest alternative terms like part-time employment,” says the councils.

“They can contribute to the national heritage science research effort by employing young heritage scientists emerging from the Science and Heritage Programme to take over from the senior researchers who retire,” they add.

In addition, they say, there is too high a demand for science-heritage grants for the AHRC, the lead council for heritage science, to be solely responsible for it.

“Heritage science needs to be recognised more widely as a discipline in its own right that makes valuable contributions to knowledge, scholarship, public understanding and the economy by making cultural heritage available to wider audiences,” reads the programme submission.

Many of the submissions to the inquiry highlight the absence of a chief scientific adviser at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as leaving the field without a champion. Having appointed Anita Charlesworth as chief scientific adviser in 2008, the department failed to replace her when she left in 2010.

Many organisations, including English Heritage, the Institute of Conservation (Icon) and the British Library, say the department therefore lacks the scientific focus needed to support the field.

“We hope that DCMS will take rapid action to remedy this by appointing a new CSA with strong experience and credentials in the physical or natural sciences, to act as a champion and to reinvigorate work of the Science and Research Advisory Committee,” says English Heritage.

Icon says a “key consequence” of the lack of CSA is the weak influence on the European Commission’s research priorities relating to heritage. It says that heritage is not featured in proposals for the EU’s €80 billion Horizon 2020 programme, the successor to Framework 7.

However, the government submission says that the search for a model to replace the CSA role is continuing. It reports that the DCMS permanent secretary met John Beddington, the government’s CSA, on 9 February and that the department “is doing further work to explore the options” as a result.