Demand for action to boost UK science

November 30, 2001

The government has overlooked the careers of skilled scientists and engineers in favour of research and infrastructure and encouraging commercialisation, a review has found.

It must take "coherent, structured" action to make careers in science and engineering more attractive in order to secure the supply of scientists and engineers needed to raise the United Kingdom's performance to match the world's best, according to the interim recommendations from the review of the supply of scientists and engineers. It was commissioned by the chancellor, Gordon Brown, after the 2001 budget.

Review author Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson College, Oxford, sent a summary of the findings to the chancellor to coincide with his pre-budget report. Copies went to the trade and industry secretary and the education and skills secretary.

Sir Gareth praised measures such as the Science Research Investment Fund and the Higher Education Innovation Fund but added: "It is clear that action is needed to complement this by securing a strong future supply of scientists and engineers."

His proposals, to be published next February, will cover:

* Recruitment and retention of science and technology teachers and encouragement of wider participation in study, especially among women

* Financial barriers to undergraduate uptake of science, engineering and technology courses and the quality of the learning experience

* Funding and training for postgraduate students and contract researchers, and recruitment and retention of academic staff

* Improving communication between employers and universities and examining opportunities for scientists in industry.

Sir Gareth sent out a consultation paper in June and received 150 responses from universities, industry, development agencies and training organisations. A majority of respondents agreed there was a problem in the supply of good quality scientists and engineers. But Scotland was seen to have benefited from a higher participation rate in higher and further education.

There was concern about the rising age of school science teachers and academics, which was not balanced by new graduates entering and staying in these professions.

The responses highlighted a decline in applications to undergraduate courses, leading to lower entry requirements and weaker students being admitted. Many said the burden of debt was putting students off applying.

Respondents said debts and low PhD stipends, despite recent increases, meant universities had trouble finding PhD and postdoctoral researchers, and low pay and fixed-term contracts were disincentives to university careers. They said academics were overworked, stressed and underpaid, and provided poor role models for students considering careers in science.

Peter Cotgreave, of lobby group Save British Science, which was not asked to respond to the consultation, said the findings would send a clear and consistent message to the Treasury that the government could not ignore.

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