Physicists lack business focus

March 14, 2003

University physicists must become more business-focused or risk holding back physics-based industry in the UK, concludes a ten-year economic analysis published this week.

The report, from the Institute of Physics, stresses that physics has become increasingly important to the UK economy. By 2000, 43 per cent of manufacturing employment was concentrated in physics-based industry.

But the IOP warns that problems such as low rates of research commercialisation, insufficient investment in research and development, and major skills shortages threaten to undermine this progress unless action is taken by universities, research councils, industry and the government.

The institute found that while there had been some high-profile spin-off activity, physics departments were not keeping pace with other disciplines in terms of commercialising academic research.

Julia King, IOP chief executive, said that university physics departments should follow the example of engineering departments in giving students a more balanced combination of business and technical skills, as well as exposing them to a more entrepreneurial culture.

The institute also called for more coordinated efforts to improve the image of physics and address the growing shortfall in the number of physics graduates able meet the demands of industry.

"In schools it is important to focus on teaching people about the excitement of science as a whole," John Taylor, the director-general of the research councils, told The THES .

"In the meantime there is a major challenge over the next few years of where to get graduates and postgraduates from," he added.

The report warns that decreasing investment in research and development, particularly in recent years, could have consequences for future productivity.

"This is a very big issue as we're behind international competitors in terms of investment in R&D in technology-based companies," Dr King said.

"You might argue that the successes of the past ten years were based on the investments from the previous ten years, so we are reliant on new investment to sustain that."

Dr Taylor said last year's spending review would provide "serious new money" for research. But the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council admitted that despite the uplift from the spending review, it has had to reject a large proportion of world-class research proposals because of insufficient funds. The council included a list of high-priority projects that it was unable to fund in its recent science committee strategy paper.

James Sterling, chair of the committee, said: "There is no doubt that this is world-class science we're missing out on."

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