Analysis: Pay up to stave off science skills crisis

April 19, 2002

The Roberts report warns of a skill shortage in science and maths unless academic salries rise. Caroline Davis and Claire Sanders report

Salaries for mathematicians, scientists and engineers working in schools and universities must rise if the UK is to avoid a skills shortfall, according to a major report on the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills.

Sir Gareth Roberts, the report's author, said at its launch this week, "We need a more selective approach to pay." He said pay at universities and schools must be nearer market rates, and the government should fund this.

He said PhD stipends must match the average graduate starting salary of just over £12,000 and that the starting salary for postdoctoral students should be at least £20,000. He also called on the government to introduce 200 academic fellowships to ease the transition from contract research to academic post.

The report, which was commissioned by the Treasury, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade and Industry, will feed into the forthcoming spending review. Sir Gareth said: "I'm absolutely confident that the government would not have asked me to undertake this review unless it was prepared to fund the consequences. The Treasury believes that universities are key to economic success. I think the government will accept the challenge and be prepared to invest."

He said that although he had been discussing the recommendations with ministers since February, he had not been asked to cost his proposals. The relevant government departments had, however, built the recommendations into their spending review bids.

While painting a "positive" picture of the science base, the report notes emerging shortages of skilled graduates and postgraduates in mathematics, engineering, chemistry and physics. "The shortages are caused by the increasing demand for these skills and the fact that fewer students are choosing to study these subjects," Sir Gareth said.

The UK was not alone in facing this problem, he added. Welcoming the report, minister for science and innovation Lord Sainsbury said: "The country that can get this right will have a real opportunity in the high-tech industries."

Between 1991-92 and 1999-2000, A-level entries generally rose by 6 per cent, but those for physics fell by 21 per cent, for maths by 9 per cent and for chemistry by 3 per cent.

Between 1994-95 and 1999-2000, applications to degree courses rose by 12 per cent, while those for chemistry fell by 16 per cent, for physics by 7 per cent and engineering by 7 per cent.

At PhD level, awards to physical scientists fell by 9 per cent between 1995-96 and 1999-2000.

"These discipline-related problems will have negative implications for research in key areas such as the biological and medical sciences, which are increasingly reliant on people who are highly numerate and who have a background in physical science," Sir Gareth said.

Lord Sainsbury said: "We are making steady progress in turning our world-class science into innovation that benefits our economy and quality of life. It is essential that this progress is not held back by a shortage of science and engineering skills."

The review is clear that the under-representation of women in science and engineering is damaging. But as Baroness Greenfield is conducting a separate study, the review has avoided covering the same ground.

Sir Gareth said many of the problems identified in the report were long-term ones. He called for "concerted action throughout the education supply chain".

The report made 37 recommendations, but there would be no quick fixes, Sir Gareth said. He said he had set realistic, staged targets, with implementation timescales of up to ten years. He said the government should commission a progress report in three years. "It should be done by a group of senior academics and industrialists who are able to look dispassionately at the recommendations and see how far government and employers have got. But it shouldn't be led by me," he said.

Higher education concerns
"There is widespread concern that higher education institutions are increasingly finding it difficult to recruit and retain their top academic researchers, with universities in other countries and businesses in the UK and abroad offering better pay and conditions," the report says.

More than a quarter of staff in mathematical and physical sciences are over 55, compared with an average of 16 per cent across the sector.

"Universities must use all the flexibility at their disposal differentially to increase the salaries - particularly starting salaries - of some scientists and engineers, especially those engaged in research of international quality," the report says. It says the government must provide more funding to allow universities to respond to market pressures. The extra funding must be permanent and may need to be ringfenced initially. "HoweverI it should be incorporated into core funding for research and also into revised subject teaching premia once more market-based salary systems have been established."

The report shows how universities are already using grade inflation to recruit and retain senior staff in shortage areas. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of professors in physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics rose an average of 25 per cent. This was not just a function of age, the report says.

Research councils should also significantly increase salaries for the science and engineering postdoctoral researchers they fund. Sponsors of research in universities and public-sector research establishments should follow suit. "The starting salary for science and engineering postdoctoral researchers should move to at least £20,000 in the near future," Sir Gareth said. In subjects such as maths, where market demand is particularly high, starting salaries should be above this.

The report also recommends that the government fund 200 five-year academic fellowships a year to be administered by the research councils. The fellowships should aim to prepare people explicitly for an academic career.

The report expresses fears about quality at postgraduate level. "The declining attractiveness of PhD study has given rise to concern about the quality of postgraduate students - illustrated by declining proportions of PhD students with 2:1 or first-class degrees in some subjects."

Consequently, the PhD stipend must be increased to the tax-free equivalent of the average graduate starting salary, Sir Gareth said, to just over £12,000. Again, this could be higher for particular shortage subjects.

He also said stipends should be extended to three and a half years on average. "Students are being put off PhDs because they fear they cannot complete them in time, and funding is cut off after three years," Sir Gareth said.

Universities should ensure that all their contract researchers have a clear career development plan. Researchers should have access to training for at least two weeks a year, the report recommended. All relevant funding from both the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the research councils should be made conditional on universities implementing these recommendations.

The quality of teaching laboratories must also be improved. "The government should introduce a major new stream of additional capital expenditure to tackle the backlog in the equipping and refurbishment of university teaching laboratories," the report says. "The priority should be to ensure the availability of up-to-date equipment and then that, by 2010, all science and engineering laboratories should be classed as at a good standard or better, as measured by Hefce." Hefce estimates that about half of all teaching laboratories need refurbishment.

The report recommends "entry-support courses" to smooth the transition between A levels and degrees. "Such entry-support courses and/or distance-learning are likely to become increasingly important given the government's commitment to widening participation."

Students on four-year science courses, whose lab work precludes paid part-time work, must have access to hardship funds, the report says.

Sir Gareth said universities must make degree content more exciting and relevant through better interaction between academic staff and employers.

Finally, the report would "welcome" the research councils extending PhD maintenance awards to European Union students as a way of improving the quality of research in the UK. "The effect of this on the number and quality of UK PhD students should be closely monitored to ensure sufficient supply of PhD holders for the needs of the UK economy."

Secondary school worries
Undergraduate and postgraduate science students should be paid to work as classroom assistants, the report says. "This will help hard-pressed teachers, improve students' transferable skills and expose school pupils to enthusiastic young scientists," Sir Gareth said.

The report recommends that teachers in shortage subjects be paid more and that they be given better initial training and continuing professional development.

Sir Gareth singled out secondary schools as facing particular problems. "Thirty per cent of those teaching physics at key stage 4, that is GCSE, have no A level in the subject," he said. The report welcomes recent work from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on inter-subject standards, particularly the difficulty of gaining top grades in maths and science.

The report describes arguments about dumbing down as a distraction. "If pupils generally find it more difficult to achieve high marks in science and mathematics, this needs to be corrected."

Employers a 'driving force'
Sir Gareth told employers to end the "apprenticeship culture" in research and development and to introduce competitive salaries.

Employers must "act as a driving force in taking the recommendations" forward, says the report. It calls for a progress report to be published before the next public spending review.

The report of Sir Gareth Roberts's review Set for Success: The Supply of People with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Skills is available from the public inquiry units and websites of the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury. Documents/Enterprise_and_ Productivity/Research_and_Enterprise/ent_res_roberts.cfm


Margaret Hodge, minister for lifelong learning and higher education
"We are committed to promoting better opportunities for young people - including the chance to develop the up-to-date science and engineering skills that are in demand.

"We will look to build on our progress so far in tackling the challenges posed by Sir Gareth's report, but our work to improve and promote science education has been acknowledged. Standards of achievement are rising."

Paul Boateng, financial secretary to the Treasury

"The government has done much to foster innovation and science in the UK, including more investment in university research and tax breaks for businesses doing research and development.

"Sir Gareth's report is important in identifying more ways of boosting the contribution science can make to improving productivity and growth."

Universities UK
"The review highlights the need for a major new stream of remedial capital expenditure in the teaching infrastructure and recommends third-stream funding to facilitate interactions between higher education institutions and employers.

"It demonstrates the recruitment and retention issues facing universities and underlines the need for significant additional investment in staff."

Save British Science
"Now the team that the chancellor himself appointed has told him that it is no longer good enough to pay highly trained science teachers and researchers vastly less than they could earn in the US, or if they left science altogether.

"There's a market for the best brains, and we have to pay the going rate."

The Royal Society
"The report paints an alarming picture of a looming crisis in the supply of scientists and engineers that has been building up over years.

"We hope the Treasury will look seriously at the need for additional government funding to raise PhD grants and the salaries of science teachers, postdoctoral researchers and university lecturers."

The Institute of Physics
"The institute is pleased that the report recommends upgrading university teaching laboratories, which will provide industry with better trained science graduates proficient in the latest technologies.

"The proposals for increased stipends for PhD students and enhanced salaries for postdoctoral researchers and other academics are in line with the institute's long campaign for a living wage for PhD students."

The Association of University Teachers
"Offering new recruits abysmally low salaries, fixed-term rather than permanent contracts and poor training is not the way to encourage talented graduates into the profession.

"These problems apply across higher education: arts and humanities as well as the sciences, teaching as well as research. To pretend that the solution is to pay researchers and scientists more than their equally hard-working colleagues is misguided."

The London Mathematical Society
"The society welcomes the thrust and detail of the report. If implemented, the returns are likely to be far in excess of the initial outlay.

"High-level mathematical skills are a critical factor in many aspects of healthy development of our society. The need to attract and retain the most brilliant in our subject to teach those skills more widely is of critical importance."

The Wellcome Trust
"This report deserves to set the agenda for the next ten years. The trust has for several years led the sector in increased pay for PhD students and academics.

"Science teachers should also be given financial incentives, and we look forward to hearing the government's response to this proposal."

Ian Gibson, MP
"The report makes good suggestions that both undergraduate and graduate students teach at schools, and that students who choose a career in science get extra financial support."

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