Alan Ryan

December 24, 2004

The US values university science departments as part of the general educational provision. Why doesn't the UK?

I was turfed out of schoolboy chemistry at the age of 13. Barely tall enough to see over the bench, and unable to light a Bunsen burner without igniting my hair, I was removed as a hazard to myself and my contemporaries and told to learn German instead.

I mildly resented my expulsion; as a small child I had lapped up The Wonderland of Knowledge , and by the age of nine I knew a good deal more about the workings of steam locomotives than I do now.

Still, it means that I stare in surprise at the way universities in the UK are closing science departments. If you look across the Atlantic, you see dozens of small liberal arts colleges running perfectly adequate departments of physics and chemistry that wouldn't get more than 3a or 4 in the research assessment exercise. Nor do they teach students just about enough to go and get a masters in some branch of agriculture afterwards. They teach the real thing.

Moreover, the top end of the liberal arts colleges - the Swarthmores, Amhersts, Williamses and the like - send a higher percentage of students on to graduate work in the sciences than the research universities. It's not entirely surprising; in big research universities, departments focus on PhD programmes and graduate students.

Only a few undergraduates do undergraduate science with an eye to a research career. Most do some science as part of their general education requirement only.

"Rocks for Jocks" and "Physics for Poets" are part of the curriculum at any large American university; and the jokiness of the nicknames suggests how seriously they are taken.

Only in really sophisticated enclaves are there courses that carry science for the generalist to the level of high art; David Billington at Princeton's School of Engineering can insinuate the mathematics of bridge design into the deafest ears while the ears' owners gaze at photographs of Swiss alpine bridges that seem an organic part of the landscape. But he is a genius.

Two other things matter more than general ed. If you teach very bright students, they will at the end of four years know a great deal of good science. Unlike the students in research universities, final-year undergraduates at liberal arts colleges are the cleverest and best-trained students on the premises. If their teachers are doing research, the final-year students are going to be doing it with them. They behave like the research students they then become.

Second, because the US treats medicine as a graduate discipline, undergraduates must take "pre-med" requirements. This is not unlike the requirement of most UK medical schools that their students show up with maths, chemistry and biology A levels. But it is more demanding because competition for good medical schools is as ferocious as in this country, and it is degree-level science - physics, chemistry, biology and maths. A university whose students want to go to medical school afterwards must teach them their pre-med requirements.

Put that together with the need for a decent general education provision and everyone is going to have at least adequate departments of the basic natural sciences; and if you have those, quite a lot of students will do research projects demanding enough to give them the flavour of the real thing.

So an outsider like me is puzzled.

When places such as Exeter University say they are closing chemistry, are they really closing chemistry? And when Keele University says it is closing physics, is it really closing physics?

When I taught at Keele 40 years ago, everyone did a bit of physics because the much-missed foundation year meant that everyone did a bit of everything. But nowadays, Exeter is part of the Peninsula medical school system, and Keele is part of a medical school consortium with Manchester; both are keen on taking people with a limited science background.

So, don't they have some way of teaching students at least the chemistry and physics they need to understand biology and physiology? And if they do, what is the fuss about?

Or do we think - against all the evidence - that the country needs yet more students graduating with single honours degrees in a natural science? We already produce disproportionate numbers of them, who go on to become accountants, consultants, lawyers and investment bankers.

What we suffer from - have suffered from for more than a century - is the inability to turn their scientific training to industrial advantage.

Producing more is like trying to get fit by stuffing yourself with food when what you need is exercise. So that can't be it - can it?

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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