Biology in terminal condition

June 7, 2002

Biology is heading for a crisis as undergraduate applications continue to plummet, heads of biological science schools have been warned.

Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology and behavioural ecology at Liverpool University, told the conference of Heads of University Biological Sciences (Hubs) at Aston University that applications had fallen steadily with 21 per cent fewer applications from UK students in 2001 than in 1997.

Projecting from the figures, he said: "We have 15 years to total meltdown."

Sir Gareth Roberts's recent review of the supply of scientists in the UK said that biology departments remained buoyant and shortages were concentrated in the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics.

But Professor Dunbar said that biology departments were only just breaking even. Many filled their courses with overseas students or diversified out of conventional biology into popular areas such as sports science.

Professor Dunbar blamed the increasing emphasis on molecular biology teaching the minutiae of mechanisms at the expense of the big biological questions such as the origins of life and evolution.

He suggested dropping the entry requirement of A-level biology to redress the balance.

Hubs chairman Paul Brain of the University of Wales, Swansea said: "This is the age of biology and we need to increase understanding of the biosciences and train the next generation of biologists. Changes to university admissions criteria will serve to widen access to biology and help those interested in pursuing the subject at degree level and beyond."

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