Royal Society calls for more science PhDs

The UK's 'innovation economy' will stall without skilled graduates, body warns. Zoe Corbyn writes.

January 31, 2008

The Government's vision of an economy based on innovation may not be realised if efforts are not made to increase the number of science PhD graduates, the Royal Society has said.

The warning comes on the back of a Royal Society report released this week that shows that the proportion of doctorates being awarded to UK students in science has fallen by nearly 10 per cent in the past ten years.

"There is reason ... to be concerned about the falling popularity of courses in some core sciences and in engineering and technology," says the report, A Higher Degree of Concern. It argues that even if the proportion of science PhDs awarded had remained steady, it would not have been enough.

"The future is going to need a more highly scientifically trained workforce," it adds.

It urges universities and the Government to reduce fees for certain courses, introduce more bursaries and improve the promotion of science as a career option to "avoid serious shortages in vital skills sets".

Judith Howard, chair of the Royal Society group that produced the report, said: "The technological breakthroughs that are required to keep us competitive will come from our labs, but only if they have enough people with the best education and skills.

"While postgraduate study in the UK is very successful in terms of the overall numbers of people studying and the income generated, the skills base our economy needs is still well behind our competitor economies," she said.

The report - the second in a project looking at the future supply and demand for graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) - focuses on postgraduate education and describes recent trends in numbers and course structures and engagement with employers' needs.

It shows strong growth in the overall number of masters and PhDs being awarded to UK students. Masters increased by 65 per cent and PhDs increased by 63 per cent over the ten years to 2004-05, it says. But while science subjects held their own in the expansion of masters courses, remaining at about 30 per cent of the total, the proportion of science doctorates fell from 65 to 57 per cent, down 8 per cent.

The relative decline was in mathematics and physical sciences. Engineering and technology were virtually static, while biological sciences and medical subjects experienced relative growth.

"At doctoral level, science has not held its own so well," the report concludes, adding that if universities are not producing the people that the economy needs, the UK is in danger of facing a skills gap.

The study proposes introducing a normal eight-year study period from the start of a first degree to the completion of a PhD and urges a detailed review of employers' needs to inform the study of Stem subjects in universities.

"More emphasis must be given to a collaborative approach to learning between universities and industry, including employer engagement with curriculum development, matching the emphasis that has been placed on knowledge transfer and commercialising research," it recommends.

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