Don't 'panic' over science-shy Britons, ESRC says

October 19, 2007

Britain is gripped by an unfounded "moral panic" that it needs to produce more home-grown science graduates to keep the economy competitive, the director of a six-year, £5 million science and society research programme claimed this week, writes Zoe Corbyn. The UK is overstating the need to increase the numbers of its science graduates when there is a vibrant international market of mobile scientific labour to draw on, said Steve Reyner, director of the Economic and Social Research Council science and society programme and professor of science and civilisation at Oxford University. It is the economy that stimulates the demand for science and technology skills and not the other way round, he added.

The view was discussed at a conference this week to consider the final results of the £5.2 million programme, which funded 45 projects studying the relationship between science and wider society.

"(Improving the UK's ability to innovate) is not a simple matter that requires a moral panic about forcing kids into science ... The sense of moral panic is overstated in the reality of an internationally science and technology-skilled labour market we can draw on," Professor Reyner said.

He stressed that it was the demand for skilled labour from industry that must come first. UK students would then study science of their own volition in pursuit of jobs in research and development, or the shortfall could be easily plugged by graduates from elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

His conclusions contradict a recent review of the UK's science and innovation by Lord Sainsbury, the former Science Minister, which said it was "essential" that the UK raise the level of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills to preserve the UK's "competitive advantage".

Richard Brown, the chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, said the UK needed to increase the number of its home-grown graduates and postgraduates in the subjects, both because the fall in the number of students studying them extended to all Western countries and because the number of postgraduates coming to study - and stay - in the UK from Asia might tail off in future.

He called on businesses to send clearer signals that they wanted graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "They underpin the financial and business service sectors," he said.

Louise Ackers, director of the European Law and Policy Research Group at Liverpool Law School, who undertook a project on science labour markets as part of the programme, said the UK was pulling in "really senior researchers" from countries such as Bulgaria and Poland. Prepared to work in junior posts for low salaries, they are putting pressure on UK postdocs. "This is a high- risk strategy that threatens the long-term sustainability of our science base," she said.

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