Pack science off to revive wellspring of creativity

Asia is determined to keep its bright sparks at home while Britain struggles to develop native scientists. Linda Nordling reports that some think this presents a golden opportunity for the UK to leap ahead by leaving basic science to other nations

October 9, 2008

Brian Chuang originally comes from Tainan in Taiwan, but lives in the UK. Last year, he graduated from Imperial College London with a BEng in biomedical engineering, and this year he received an MPhil in management from the University of Cambridge.

He is embarking on a PhD in bioengineering at the University of Oxford later this autumn, but beyond that, he says, his plans are uncertain. "In the short run I prefer to stay in the UK because it is much more international than back home, so you get to meet more people from all over the world and there are more opportunities. In the long run, I guess I will eventually return home, but it's still undecided."

Chuang is one of the tens of thousands of young Asians who come to the UK to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects each year. They present UK policymakers with a challenge.

On the one hand, they create demand for the country's science and engineering departments at a time when native students are conspicuous by their absence. In 2006-07, almost a third of all engineering students came from outside Europe. Many also remain in the UK to work after they graduate, shoring up the country's scientific workforce both in academia and the private sector.

But with China and other Asian countries investing heavily in creating their own top-class universities or offering incentives for graduates to return home after completing their studies, these students may not keep coming, or staying here, for ever.

If the supply of Asian scientists dries up, it seems natural to assume that the UK will need to produce more scientists from its own population. This is proving problematic, however, as the trend among young Britons is to shun STEM subjects. They think they are too difficult, too nerdy or simply too boring to stick with through A levels. There is talk of a science "crisis", buttressed by reports of universities closing departments and physics "deserts" opening up in parts of the country.

But what if the opposite were true? What if the move away from science towards arts and management degrees, coupled with the rise of Asian science, should be regarded as an opportunity, not a threat?

That may sound unlikely, but it has been presented as a serious policy option on the other side of the Atlantic. For just as in the UK, politicians in the United States worry about the falling numbers of young Americans taking STEM subjects.

Last year, a US National Academies report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, warned that the country's leadership in science would be threatened if it did not quickly start producing more home-grown scientists to make up for an anticipated slowdown in the number of foreign ones who will want to go there.

But last autumn, Christopher T. Hill, professor of public policy and technology at George Mason University in Virginia, published a controversial article suggesting that if the Chinese and Indians look as if they are set to beat the US at science and technology, the US should let them. Instead of upping the ante in science, he said, the US should try to piggyback on these countries' advances by focusing its efforts - and youth - on the application, not the generation, of new knowledge.

The article, "The Post-Scientific Society", appeared in Issues in Science and Technology, a journal of the US National Academy of Sciences. In the future, Hill argues, wealth creation will be based "principally not on world leadership in fundamental research in the natural sciences and engineering, but on world-leading mastery of the creative powers of, and the basic sciences of, individual human beings, their societies, and their cultures".

He gives the examples of companies such as Amazon.com and Wal-Mart that have risen "not as much by mastering the intricacies of physics, chemistry, or molecular biology as by structuring human work and organisational practices in radical new ways".

But Hill extends his argument to suggest that the exodus from science degrees in the US may not be all that important. In a post-scientific world, he says, a liberal arts degree that fosters creative thinking may be as useful as - or perhaps more useful than - a pure science qualification.

"As competence in fundamental math and science has been enhanced around the world, these fields may not appear as attractive to US students as they once did. If, in fact, the United States is on the threshold of a post-scientific future, then today's young people may be making wise career choices when they focus their energies on something other than mastery of math and science," he writes.

Needless to say, the title alone of Hill's piece arouses strong reactions among policymakers.

"We are not and never will be in a post-scientific society," says Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE), which aims to foster better relationships between the business and university sectors in the UK. "Science is fundamental to addressing the great global issues of our day."

But, says Hill, science still matters in a post-scientific society - it may just not be "our" science. Since the rise of science in Asia is likely to make it cheaper to do world-class science there than in the US, he suggests, this should be exploited by the US in the same way that it has exploited cheap labour in developing countries to produce low-cost goods. To borrow a term from the world of business, Americans need to "move up the value chain" of knowledge generation.

Part of Hill's vision - that innovation will move "from the workshop, the laboratory and the office to the studio, the think-tank, the atelier and cyberspace" - seems to have already found traction in Whitehall. In Innovation Nation, a White Paper published in March by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), the Government says it wants to encourage the "hidden innovation" that occurs in sectors that traditionally do not do much research and development such as oil production, banking and services.

Innovation Nation was criticised by some in the science community for overlooking their contribution to economic growth. But the Government says that the broader scope of its new innovation strategy does not mean that it is valuing science less. "The Government is committed to ensuring the UK is the best place to carry out world-class scientific research. By 2010-11, government support for the UK research base will reach its highest level ever," according to a DIUS spokesman.

So how real is the threat that the UK's steady supply of Asian science and engineering students and professionals might dry up? About 50,000 Chinese studied at UK universities in 2006-07, and almost 24,000 Indians. Together, they made up 30 per cent of non-EU students in the country that year. So far, their numbers do not seem to be in decline - in fact, recently they have risen. The number of Indian students increased between 2005-06 and 2006-07, and the number of Chinese applications for 2008-09 rose by a fifth from last year, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said in July.

But, looking five to ten years ahead, we might expect more Asian students to choose to stay at home (or return there after graduation). The Chinese Government is investing heavily in its own university sector, according to the UK think-tank Demos, which investigated the growth of science in emerging economies in a series of reports published last year.

China has more than 4.2 million new students each year, four times as many as it had in the mid-1990s, and the number is growing. There are also excellent opportunities for researchers: China has increased its R&D spend by 20 per cent each year since 1999, and some say that by 2010 China's R&D spend as a proportion of gross domestic product will catch up with Europe's.

The Chinese Government is also directing extra funding to a clutch of universities with the aim of making them "world class". Only two are among the top 100 in the world in the 2008 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. But according to Demos, the universities in China outside the top 100 are moving quickly up the list.

With quality at home on the rise, going to the UK to study may no longer be worth the expense, says Zeeshan Ahmed, who came to the UK from Pakistan to do an MSc in telecommunications. He stayed here after graduating and now writes a blog that aims to help international students understand UK immigration rules. "International students pay three times more than home students for some degree courses in the UK. It will be cheaper for Chinese students to graduate in their own country," he points out.

For students from India, it is a slightly different story. Its university system produces a small number of truly excellent graduates through the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). But since admission to the IITs is fiercely competitive, the majority of bright young Indians look set to continue travelling abroad for a top-quality education. But the country's growing economy means that more students may want to return after their degrees, shrinking this talent pool in the UK. "The number of students coming to the UK might not decrease, but students going back to their countries might increase," Ahmed says.

The same seems to be true for other Asian countries. The "trickle" back to China of scientists and engineers has turned into a "steady flow" in recent years, Demos says.

Earlier this summer, Vietnam's Government said it was planning a project to encourage researchers to return home. And South Korea has gone even further by launching a £400 million drive to attract not only Korean, but also non-Korean, scientists to come to work in the country.

Another point to consider is that the people who do come here may not want to keep studying STEM subjects to the extent that they have done to date, Ahmed adds. "One of the biggest reasons for international students taking degrees in science and engineering subjects was that the UK's immigration system always welcomed engineers and doctors.

"But now the UK has opened its doors to international students taking any degree in any subject and is offering them post-study work visas, which allow students to work for two years. So international students will start taking management and social sciences degrees as well."

Declining numbers of foreign students or large shifts in their demand for courses could present major challenges for UK universities. This might, in time, lead to further closures of science departments, although not everyone believes that this is necessarily a bad thing.

"I don't accept the view that science is in dire straits," says Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter. When his university announced in 2004 that it was closing its chemistry department, the news generated nearly 100 national media stories in just six weeks. But the decision did the institution good, Smith argues.

"We shouldn't forget that there is a human cost in closing departments," he adds. "However, universities usually close departments because they feel they can't make them work, financially or academically. The effect on the institution is usually positive since it means resources can be focused on the departments that are performing well."

He says Exeter has experienced a growth in its biosciences department since the closure.

The final plank in Hill's thesis concerns the market for British and American science graduates. Does the fall in the number of British young people studying science have to be greeted by the doom and gloom that usually accompanies reports on this trend? Are they being perfectly rational in studying arts subjects instead? Is a STEM degree a passport to a good job? Might we see a trend whereby more and more R&D is carried out in Asia (see box)? And what is the employer's perspective?

"From the universities' point of view, (the shortage of young Britons wanting to study sciences) is a big problem, and the Government has accepted that and seems to be running with the idea that it is a national catastrophe," says Michael Tubbs, author of the UK Government's R&D Scoreboard, which tracked research investments by companies in the UK from 2000 to 2006. "But from the companies' point of view, is the problem as big?" he asks.

How highly industry values science and engineering skills is clearly of interest to British teenagers who are mulling over their subject choices. Two studies have been published this year on what companies want from graduates, and the skills normally associated with a science degree are not top of the list. The CIHE revealed in February that most graduate employers (more than 85 per cent) valued "soft" skills such as communication and team working over intellectual ability (81 per cent) or numeracy (68 per cent). A survey published by the Confederation of British Industry in July came to similar conclusions, and showed that only 30 per cent of graduate jobs require a specific degree discipline.

While these figures hardly show that young Britons would be ill advised to seek qualifications in the sciences or engineering, they do make clear that these are far from the only (or even best) options.

So how can students acquire sought-after skills? An innovative society thrives on creativity, says Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, who heads Universities UK's long-term strategy group. "Is it the formal analytical skills supposedly associated with the science graduate that the knowledge economy needs? The skills the economy requires are interdisciplinary skills, the ability to make unexpected and creative connections. Arts and humanities graduates are particularly good at that," he says.

However, he adds: "It is a mistake to think that scientists aren't creative as well. We can be too rigid in the way we think about these issues: it really isn't science or the rest, as it is too often seen."

The jury may still be out on Christopher Hill's theory of the post-scientific society in its more extreme form, although his analysis offers stimulating new ways of thinking about what lies ahead. For a start, we should probably take reports of a science "crisis" in the UK with a pinch of salt. Yet one thing is absolutely clear: as current global trends become clearer, British universities will need to rethink their strategies to adapt to demand, ensure their financial future and produce the kind of graduates the economy requires.

OUTSOURCED R&D: THE WAY AHEAD?

Much research can be undertaken in many different places, so what is to prevent expensive R&D currently carried out in Britain from being transferred to Asia (or elsewhere), with obvious consequences for British universities and science graduates?

In theory, universities could outsource even part of their academic, curiosity-driven research to cut costs. But according to the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE), which has examined international collaborations in UK universities, the key motivating factor for research collaborations is overlapping research interests.

What is more, says one of the CIHE's lead researchers, it is a little arrogant to expect top Indian and Chinese universities to let UK partners drive collaborations. In fact, he claims, an Indian institute recently rejected a collaboration offer from a UK university, deeming it not sufficiently high-profile.

Industrial R&D, which is usually more results-focused, offers a better model for how R&D outsourcing might work in practice. For example, large pharmaceutical companies often have R&D facilities all over the world, and can pick and choose between universities across the globe when they want to contract out research to academics.

Cost is not the sole deciding factor for where these research contracts end up - quality and protection of intellectual property have a higher priority. But quality in China and India is on the rise. If many industrial R&D jobs were to move to Asia, this would clearly constrict the market for scientists in the UK.

Already, companies such as Vodafone, Microsoft and AstraZeneca are setting up R&D facilities in China. In July this year, drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which employs 7,000 R&D staff in the UK, said it would double the number it employs in China over the next two years. However, the operation so far is small, and the doubling will take the total number of R&D staff to only 350.

GSK set up its Chinese R&D centre last year, and the operation is likely to grow further. But the company says that its investments in China were not pulling R&D funds from its sites in the UK - a caveat repeated by many of the companies setting up shop in China.

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