Computing is the new 'Queen of the Sciences'

February 23, 2007

Those concerned for the future of computer science in the UK need have no fear, argue Yorick Wilks et al.

The debate has been passionate and well informed, raging on online mailing lists and academic blogs, in senior common rooms and in computer science departments across the country.

A principal lecturer in computing at De Montfort University wrote in The Times Higher (February 9) that computer science was dying in the UK. But while Neil McBride's article was stimulating, it was also utterly wrong regarding the facts and his unsupported claims.

Contrary to the miserable impression McBride gave, there are today more computer science students in the UK than in all of the more traditional sciences - physics, chemistry and biology - put together. Even so, few would argue that basic physical science is dying, or losing out to industrial research, just because it is sometimes hard to recruit undergraduates from our school system.

Likewise in our field. McBride's complaints may best be seen as a description of what has happened in universities that do not do computer science research, but his disbelief that Microsoft hires computer science PhDs suggests he knows little of that commercial world. Just a few weeks ago, Bill Gates explicitly asserted he wanted to recruit more of them.

There is also an oddity in McBride's article when he rubbishes the products of computer science departments but tells us, with apparent approbation, that Indian universities produce "100,000 skilled English-speaking" graduates every year, having taken over "the very paradigms and skills that are dear to British computer scientists". Surely, if the Indians are right to pursue such goals then so must we.

There is no difficulty in revealing the basic facts about all this. The website of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council carries a copy of its International Review of UK Computer Science . This found that the standard of research in universities was excellent; the creators of web search engines such as Google, for example, continue to emerge from university departments, while in the UK important work that made the likes of Skype and MSN Messenger possible was done in our universities.

All market surveys show huge and continuing demand for well-trained computer science graduates on either side of the Atlantic, a demand that is admittedly now being met by India, partly because of the growth of pessimistic beliefs such as McBride's in this country.

But his Times Higher article does touch on real issues, well-known and much debated in the field. There is the gap between the computer science core, taught in good departments, which is clearly in demand in industry, and the much softer IT/ICT disciplines, which involve some business training and use of commercial packages but little rigorous programming.

E-skills degrees of this sort are now being offered in many places, and one must wish them well. But it is not yet clear what the future of their graduates will be, because they are neither one thing nor the other, and recruiters know this. Nevertheless - and here is the crux of our argument - promotion of these new degrees does not require or support an attack on computer science itself, certainly not in the way McBride has chosen to do.

On the other hand, he is right that computer science must reach out much more to other disciplines, from psychology, philosophy, sociology and linguistics to medicine, biotechnology, nanotechnology and beyond, because the computational metaphor is now at the intellectual core of most disciplines. Far from being dead, computing is now effectively the new "Queen of the Sciences".

How odd it is that most houses and offices now have a thing still called a "computer", but barely one in a hundred is ever used to program. And soon this situation will change and most people will deal only with "black box"

devices that contain great computing power to enable them to play games, access the web, drive cars, see films and fill fridges, and it will not occur to anyone to call them computers. Yet behind these devices there will still be armies of trained programmers from good university computer science departments, based either here in the UK or abroad.

That last choice is still ours to make to some extent, but this shortage of British expertise is hardly going to be tackled by declaring, as McBride does, that a crucial university subject is finished because he cannot or will not teach or research its core discipline.

Yorick Wilks, professor of artificial intelligence at Sheffield University; Bill Roscoe, director of the computing laboratory at Oxford University; Keith van Rijsbergen, professor of computer science at Glasgow University; Andrew Main, head of computing at Bournemouth University; Samson Abramsky, professor of computing at Oxford; Jean Bacon, professor of distributed systems at Cambridge University; Marc Cavazza, professor of intelligent virtual environment at Teesside University; and 53 other deans, heads of department and professors of computer science at new and old universities.

The full list id at:

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