From where I sit - STEMming the rate of decline

September 2, 2010

Leif Johansson, the chairman of the European Round Table of Industrialists, recently observed that Europe is in danger of being overtaken by China and India economically because of a dearth of engineers. He is right, although the problem is about more than engineers.

A principal indicator of a developed society is its ability to educate its own skilled workforce, rather than importing it. The trouble is that no one in the UK wants to admit where the problem lies: the attitude of society towards teachers and lecturers. For too long, teachers' pay and conditions have been allowed to degrade in relation to those of people working in the private sector, and even in the rest of the public sector.

This trend is most marked in science and engineering. Graduates in physics, mechanical engineering, computer science and chemistry face the prospect of long hours, low pay and contempt from a society convinced that those who can, do, and those who can't, teach - all the while servicing student loans on terms that assume that all graduates gain financially from their degrees.

But society must acknowledge that in a knowledge economy, you can't pay a pittance to those who educate the next generation of knowledge workers. Without radical action to address the recruitment of schoolteachers and academics from among the best graduates, the next generation will not be inspired to take up those subjects.

Physics is at the sharp end of this worrying trend. In the 1980s, financial companies in London saw that they could make lots of money with the help of highly skilled numerical modellers - namely physicists. Physics graduates were confronted with a stark choice: mounting debt while training, followed by years of low pay as a teacher, or a high starting salary and quick advancement in business. Soon it became almost impossible to recruit physics teachers.

Instead of addressing this recruitment problem directly, the UK government allowed chemistry and biology teachers to teach physics. While those teachers were doubtless excellent in their own fields, physics didn't excite them the way chemistry and biology did. So a generation of schoolchildren found physics boring and didn't want to study it at university, and the supply of physicists dried up even further.

Meanwhile, demand from the financial world didn't dry up, but took a larger chunk of the diminishing pool. The capacity to teach physics at British universities was also allowed to wither, because there weren't enough undergraduates to fund the critical mass needed to maintain a laboratory-based subject, so departments closed, further decreasing enrolment by limiting choice of institution.

In the US, a similar decline in undergraduate numbers in physics in the 1980s and 1990s has been reversed since 1999, but had only just approached 1970 levels by 2008. In Japan, the numbers graduating in science and engineering have risen steadily in the same period.

But in Britain, the vicious circle goes round: physics (and chemistry, biology, computing and engineering) departments continue to shrink or close. Spending money is an unpopular idea, and offering large pay rises to certain groups, however worthy, is politically difficult in a recession. But without mass investment in recruiting very good people in science, technology and engineering into schools and universities, and allowing them the freedom to inspire their students, the UK's knowledge economy will inevitably decline.

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