Government tsars are not appointed when everything in their field of expertise is going smoothly, so it is no surprise that John Holman appears to face overwhelming odds in the new role of national director for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He is charged with revitalising subjects, several of which are in long-term decline not just in the UK but throughout most of the industrialised world. Schools, faced with ongoing shortages of specialist teachers, are struggling to produce tomorrow's scientists, while universities are closing departments and watering down traditional degree syllabuses to cater for a new clientele.
In the past fortnight, Reading University decided to close its physics department and the new GCSE in scientific literacy faced a barrage of criticism from scientists and politicians. It is only a matter of time before the integrated sciences degrees launched by East Anglia, London South Bank, Leicester and Surrey universities get the same treatment for admitting students without maths and physics A levels.
Science education in the UK has its problems, but Professor Holman's appointment is just one of a number of signs of a belated determination to reverse the decline. Developed correctly, both the new GCSE and the four universities' degrees could aid rather than hinder the process, because they are pragmatic responses to current conditions. The GCSE syllabus was designed specifically for those not intending to take science in the sixth form, to offer a grounding in scientific principles and an awareness of important debates. Scarce specialists are freed to nurture potential recruits for science degrees, whether of the traditional type or the latest variant. If integrated courses can do for hard science what classical studies has done for another problem area for recruitment, they should be welcomed.
At the highest levels, the crisis can be overstated. American universities may have monopolised this year's Nobel Prizes, but Cambridge and Oxford universities top our world rankings for the natural sciences (pages 8 and 9) and seven other UK universities are in the top 100. Other than in physics, there has not been a catastrophic decline in the numbers taking A level or applying for undergraduate places. Departmental closures have had more to do with research costs than student recruitment, as the funding councils have recognised. The most urgent need for Professor Holman's attention is at school level. With his appointment came £18 million of investment in new projects - hardly a fortune, but a step in the right direction for maths, physics and chemistry. Rather than harking back to an age in which every pupil took the separate sciences, he has to work with the education system as he finds it.