Academics issued severe warnings about the future of medical research in the UK this week after it was announced that applications for physiology, anatomy and pathology degree courses plummeted by 18 per cent.
According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service's latest application figures, released last week, there were 25,282 applications to study anatomy, physiology and pathology in 2007.
This represents an 18.1 per cent drop on the previous year. Other core science subjects saw rises in applications, with biology up 6 per cent, chemistry up more than 11 per cent and physics up more than 12 per cent.
Ole Peterson, president of the Physiological Society and Medical Research Council research professor at Liverpool University, called the drop in applications "truly shocking" and warned of dire consequences for basic medical research when the effect of the fall was considered in parallel with cuts to the MRC's budget.
The budget could be cut to less than £250 million, with £750 million going to the National Health Service's research budget under "Cooksey Arrangements", he said.
"Although it would appear that, overall, the biological sciences are doing reasonably well, the dramatic drop in physiology - the most basic science underpinning medicine and medical research - is of really deep concern," he said. "The present Government asserts again and again that it wants the UK to be the best country in the world in which to do research, but these recent documented trends would indicate that this will most certainly not apply to basic medical research."
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency's 2005-06 student returns, the number of students (undergraduate and postgraduate) studying anatomy, physiology and pathology is 3,360 overall - anatomy 560, physiology 1,850, pathology 280 and cellular pathology 50. But some students studying these subjects could be classified separately, Hesa said.
An MRC spokesman said that budget changes would depend on this year'sJcomprehensive spending review and the Office of Strategic Co-ordination for Health Research. But he added that the degree application figures were "part of a general and worrying trend that fewer people are studying mainstream science. We have been concerned for some time about the decline in the number of students in the UK with skills in whole animal biology. We need to find ways to encourage students into sciences such as anatomy, pathology and physiology."