The future of science and technology in the UK seems to be entering something of a ‘push-me pull-me’ phase. On one day an £18m investment aimed at reversing the falling numbers of students studying physics, maths, chemistry and engineering was announced by Higher Education Funding Council for England – which will contribute almost £12 million of the total package – but the following day the new GCSE science courses were branded as ‘dumbed down’ by the Rector of Imperial College.
Two weeks before that, Reading University announced that it would be following Newcastle University’s lead and close its physics department because of under funding.
Meanwhile the Institute of Physics’ science director, Peter Main, was quoted as saying that there is a mismatch between what employers’ want and the economic drivers of universities – because physics graduates were very employable and well paid. Although fewer technically skilled people are needed in the UK, due to the continuing move to offshore technical work, there does need to be a core of well-qualified science graduates to encourage the technical innovation that the economy needs.
It is already difficult to attract young people to science or engineering rather than media studies or marketing, without universities closing down courses and education experts arguing over the merits of single science subjects.
The problem is that studying science properly is expensive. It has been under funded in schools and colleges for years. This year A-level entries in physics reached a new low with 37 per cent fewer students choosing it than in 1991, according to the Royal Society.
What is needed is sustained investment in science for schools and colleges, rather than haphazard initiatives and chunks of money given out here and there. The Royal Society has said it is worried that the next generation of scientists will be lost if the situation is not addressed properly and that is something that the UK cannot afford to let happen.