Biology bubble in danger of bursting

May 14, 2004

The boom in biosciences is being jeopardised by the dwindling supply of academics in the physical sciences, biologists told The Times Higher this week.

During a dinner hosted this month by the umbrella organisation for bioscientists, the Biosciences Federation, senior academics said that the scarcity of chemistry and physics students coming through the academic system could cause serious problems for biology in ten years.

Tom Blundell, president of the federation and professor of biochemistry at Cambridge University, told The Times Higher : "There is a continuing shift away from areas such as biochemistry towards whole-organism biology and psychology. But we need people at the chemistry end as well. All biology needs molecular techniques now."

Professor Blundell pointed out that the excitement surrounding the biosciences might prove counterproductive. He said: "Perhaps students don't articulate it, but there is a feeling that science is all about biology."

Julia Goodfellow, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council, said that the growing number of universities choosing to drop chemistry or physics could be damaging for the whole field.

She said: "The definition of a biologist is changing. A biologist is someone who answers biological questions. We need people with lots of different backgrounds to answer those questions."

The council's latest call for research proposals in systems biology - a new focus for the council - specifies that universities must set up multidisciplinary research teams to win funding.

Sir Harry Kroto, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, attacked the government for not intervening to save key subjects such as chemistry. He pointed out that the country could expect more chemistry department closures because of underfunding and low recruitment levels.

He said: "Unless vice-chancellors are forced to consider what is best for society, they will use a microeconomic approach. Survival means taking every media studies student they can get as they are cheaper, and closing down chemistry as it is expensive."

He added: "The major area of growth is in biochemistry. Biology is moving away from furry animal studies. It is significant that Frederick Sanger won the Nobel prize for chemistry (for his sequencing work)."

The Biosciences Federation has launched discussions with the Royal Society of Chemistry about how to stimulate the physical sciences in schools.

Professor Blundell said: "My daughter feels the questions in chemistry at GCSE level are much more boring. You get a turn-off very early on."

But he warned that the government needed to inject cash into the biosciences if it expected the boom to continue. He said there was little awareness that biosciences were becoming increasingly expensive.

He said: "With no acknowledgement of increasing costs by government, we have survived only because of funding from charities such as the Wellcome Trust."

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