A very useful subject - in theory

September 5, 1997

The THES continues its series on subjects at the top and bottom of the popularity stakes. History & Philosophy of Science

Europe's only dedicated history and philosophy of science degree, which received just applications this year, is battling to establish itself in the student marketplace, writes Julia Hinde.

Until 1993, courses in this subject were available at University College London, and at other universities including Queen's Belfast, Cambridge, and Leeds, but only as part of another degree or in combination with another subject.

Last year's 122 applicants for such courses were mostly to joint honours courses within history, philosophy, anthropology or science departments. The exception is UCL, where for five years history and philosophy of science has been offered in its own right.

With the help of clearing, almost 30 students are due to start the three-year degree at UCL this October, and plans are afoot for a similar course at Leeds.

UCL's degree offers a choice between a traditional approach, concentrating on the structure of scientific theory and the nature of time and space, and a more applied approach using acquired insight to consider issues of science journalism, ethics and policy.

The degree, according to Arthur Miller, head of department, considers the "interaction of science, government and technology", and involves "the study of science in a cultural background".

It is for those "who like reading about science", he said, but who do not want to do a conventional science degree. Students, he adds, will not be solving equations or blowing up labs, but an interest in science per se is essential.

Applicants to the department had been increasing annually until this year, which saw a slight drop. "It has not been hard getting students in until now," says Professor Miller, adding that clearing has been useful.

But he admits: "It's very difficult to get information out about the subject because students don't take it at A level. We write letters to schools already sending students and say send more. We also rely on word of mouth."

Fall-out rates from the degree have been surprisingly high. Of the 28 who enrolled in the first year, only 13 graduated.

Figures for the second intake, which graduated this summer, were little better.

Professor Miller says many of the initial recruits had been taken from clearing and now the course was getting "more of the students we want".

This includes students with at least one science A level, as well as a number from the continent where an equivalent dedicated course apparently does not exist.

"A-level students' grades are now very high," said Professor Miller.

Of the 13 who graduated last year from UCL, one third have continued into postgraduate study. One is working in science policy, others in PR and publishing. One has taken a job in the city and another is doing a conversion course to law.

As for employability of graduates, Professor Miller concludes: "Anything you know about science and technology in the world today is all to your favour."

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