Bricks and mortar of the 21st century

February 18, 2000

Materials science promises future health and wealth. But in the fourth part of a series on the state of degree subjects, Colin Humphreys warns that without more cash and courses, Britain will be stuck in the past

Materials science in the United Kingdom stands at the crossroads of unprecedented opportunities and unprecedented threats.

A revolution is occurring in science and technology that will see some radical changes in the 21st century. In the past, humans have gradually modified the natural world through trial and error to produce improved food, weapons and wealth. Thus different varieties of cows have been cross-bred to produce more milk or better beef, iron has been obtained from iron ore and fabricated into swords and then guns, silicon has been produced from silicon oxide and made into computer chips.

But now scientists have the knowledge to design materials and biological structures to meet specific needs, often building them atom by atom. These materials can be radically different from anything occurring in nature.

In the future, biologists will be able to identify genetic defects in humans and correct them, and, working with materials scientists, they will be able to tissue engineer replacement body parts.

The implications of these new technologies are immense for our health and wealth. Speaking last month in California, Bill Clinton said: "The first thing I want to underscore is that science and technology have become the engine of economic growth." He then proposed the largest ever increase in the United States research budget.

Foresight exercises in various developed countries have identified materials science, information technology and biotechnology as the disciplines that will drive advances in the 21st century.

So what is materials science? It involves the physics and chemistry of all solid materials - metals, semiconductors, plastics, etc - and their engineering applications. It is the bridge between the pillars of science and engineering.

Materials scientists are developing materials for fuel cells that will eliminate pollution from buses, lorries and cars; materials for super-efficient power stations that will consume less fuel, emit less carbon dioxide and produce cheaper electricity; materials for artificial hips; materials for electronic chips to treat blindness; and materials for artificial arteries to give life to those who are dying.

The list goes on and on and what is particularly exciting about materials science is that these materials are not being developed slowly, as in the past, but are being designed by brain power and computer modelling and often grown atom by atom.

Yet, despite the opportunities created by these advances, materials science also faces major problems. The quality and quantity of applicants from schools is very low. Because of its multidisciplinary nature, materials science courses require candidates with A levels in maths, physics and chemistry. The number of UK candidates offering this combination has declined by about 75 per cent in the past ten years.

The situation in schools with the teaching of physics is particularly serious. About 1,000 graduate physics teachers are retiring or leaving school teaching every year and only 150 graduate physics teachers are entering. An increasing number of state schools have no graduate physics teachers at all. It is therefore not surprising that last year the number of applicants for materials science courses fell by 10 per cent.

Indeed, the number of applicants for all physical sciences and engineering courses dropped last year by about 10 per cent. By comparison, the applicants for sports science courses increased by per cent. A serious consequence of the low numbers of materials science applicants is that many good UK materials science departments have closed. No Scottish university now offers a degree in materials science. The latest materials science department to close its course is the grade 4 department at Bath, which closed a few months ago. A number of other departments are under threat.

But it is not only materials science departments that are closing - so too are physics departments, where much material science research is done.

Both the grade 4 physics department at the University of East Anglia and the grade 5 department at Essex have closed. Cambridge is now the only university in East Anglia to offer a degree in physics or materials science.

The national lack of high-quality undergraduate applicants in materials science and related subjects is a serious threat to the future of the subject.

It would seem to be counter to national needs for UK universities to be expanding courses in media studies and sports sciences and closing courses in materials science. The problem is that the customers of the universities are seen to be only the students, whereas the customers should be seen to be both the students and their future employers. In the funding of university subjects and in the promotion of subjects in schools, insufficient weight is being given to the needs of these employers.

UK materials science also suffers from a lack of high-quality researchers, a result of the low salaries offered.

Three years ago, a consortium I coordinated was awarded a Technology Foresight Challenge Grant on materials for aerospace and power plants. The partners were Cambridge and Swansea universities, Daresbury Laboratory and eight UK industries. More than Pounds 1.4 million of government funding and more than Pounds 2 million of industrial funding was awarded. The grant contained six postdoctoral positions, each offering the standard salary of Pounds 16,000 a year. Despite intensive international advertising, few high-quality scientists applied and it was impossible to fill all the positions. The project was delayed for a year because of these recruitment problems, but it is now going well.

Last year, a UK company, Thomas Swan, offered to build and donate to me its latest equipment, worth more than Pounds 500,000, to grow gallium nitride material and devices. Gallium nitride is probably the most important electronics material since silicon, with huge applications. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council provided substantial additional funding including funding for a postdoctoral scientist to be responsible for the growth of the gallium nitride.

I knew that recruiting a post-doc in this highly topical area would be very difficult so I applied for, and was granted, a higher level postdoctoral position, with a salary of Pounds 22,000. We advertised extensively, including in the United States, hoping to bring back one of the many UK scientists who have emigrated. We received 20 applications, but only one of the 20 applicants was sufficiently good to be appointed, a Dutchman who is excellent. If he had not applied, the project would have been in trouble.

Recently I visited Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne. The materials scientists there said that when they wanted a laugh they would open New Scientist and look at the salaries offered in the UK.

In materials science, the sad fact is that UK salaries are a joke. A minimum increase of 50 per cent is required if we are to recruit and retain the best young materials scientists. Of the research students I have supervised who have chosen to stay in science, either in university or industry, 19 have emigrated and only eight have stayed in the UK. Because materials science is such a key subject, the opportunities and salaries available outside the UK are a great attraction - one that will increase as the US gives science and technology an even higher priority.

My impression is that the recruitment situation in materials science in the UK is much worse than in biology, because the UK produces many more biologists, and also because biologists, not necessarily being particularly numerate, are not in demand in the City. I have lost five good research students to the City, where the standard starting salary for a PhD is Pounds 40,000 plus a Pounds 20,000 bonus. In each case the students loved science and would have forgone a Pounds 60,000 salary in the City for a postdoctoral post worth Pounds 25,000. But they would not stay in science for Pounds 16,000.

So materials science in the UK stands at the crossroads of unprecedented opportunities and unprecedented threats.

There is no doubt that UK materials science is world class, but we are balancing on a pinnacle with very steep sides. In the US, materials scientists are on a plateau of similar height, but one that is broad and well-watered. The public funding of materials science in the US is more than ten times that in the UK.

If UK materials science is to remain world class, the quality and quantity of undergraduate entrants to it and related subjects and the problems with recruiting postdoctoral scientists must be tackled. We need more high-quality school teachers in the physical sciences and higher salaries for postdoctoral scientists and young academic staff.

To ignore these problems will be to face economic decline in the 21st century as we struggle to compete internationally.

Colin Humphreys is Goldsmiths professor of materials science at Cambridge University.

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