Physics is too male and middle class, Wakeham says

October 30, 2008

University physics departments are not well positioned for the future because they are too similar, too narrowly focused and contain too many upper middle-class white men.

That is the message from Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, who is due to outline his concerns at an Institute of Physics meeting this week after the publication of his report into the health of the discipline.

Speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of the event, Professor Wakeham said most departments had similar specialisations, very little industrial funding, "almost no masters students" and very few overseas undergraduate students.

"Compared with other disciplines, they are relying very, very heavily on two (physical sciences) research councils," he said.

Professor Wakeham also accused physicists of ignoring the cues from research councils that would help with diversification.

"(Physicists) have a particular conception of their discipline that is not consistent with where the research councils are placing their funding," he said, pointing to academics' lack of enthusiasm for medical physics.

The discipline is at risk of becoming "essentially male, white and upper middle class", he added.

Finally, he questioned the career advice given to postdoctoral researchers, of whom only 20 per cent moved into academic jobs.

The meeting follows the Science and Technology Facilities Council's announcement that it will spend £9 million to ameliorate a £25 million cut in physics grants resulting from a budget shortfall last year.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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