Brussels, 17 May 2004
There are worrying signs that the number of students choosing to follow careers in science is decreasing, according to the President of the Royal Society, the UK's academy of science.
Speaking to MPs at the annual general meeting of the parliamentary and scientific committee, Lord May of Oxford pointed to a 'particularly alarming' decline in the number of new entrants for A-level [pre-university exam courses] mathematics, physics and chemistry, which he said 'threatens the prosperity and quality of life of the whole nation.'
'The UK has an enviable track record for producing world class scientists,' said Lord May. 'Yet there are worrying signs that the supply of talented individuals may be faltering.'
Of particular concern to the Royal Society are figures showing that, between 1991 and 2003, the number of entrants into A-level chemistry decreased by 19 per cent, physics enrolments fell by 30 per cent, and mathematics witnessed a decline of 25 per cent. These figures contrast with the trend in overall enrolments for A-levels over the same period, which went up by 7.4 per cent. The one area of science that still appears able to attract students is biology, where entrants have risen by 11 per cent since 1991.
Lord May believes that: 'The government must respond to these disturbing trends by implementing the recommendations of two important reviews, one [...] into the supply of scientists and engineers, published in April 2002, and the other [...] into school mathematics, published in February this year. Both of these documents outline important ways of engaging more young people with science and mathematics, and to continue studying the subjects beyond the age of 16.'
Both reports emphasise the need to improve the number and diversity of science graduates recruited into teaching, to provide students and teachers with access to well-equipped facilities, and to closely relate curricula to the daily lives and experiences of pupils.
And it is not only at school level where more attention is needed, according to Lord May. Figures from the higher education statistics agency show that between 1996 and 2002 there was a fall in the number of first-year undergraduates in engineering and technology of eight per cent, and in the physical sciences of 20 per cent.
'We need to make sure that the higher relative cost of running many science and engineering undergraduate courses is not passed on [to students] through variable tuition fees, creating financial disincentives [...] that would worsen present trends,' said Lord May.
In order to persuade the best undergraduates to carry on their scientific careers, furthermore, Lord May argued that: 'Researchers should be encouraged to collaborate across both disciplines and institutions without worrying about whether they will fit into a neat box on a research assessment form.' They should also be encouraged to work more closely with business to pursue innovations, without worrying that this will adversely affect their research rating, he added.
Finally, Lord May said that while it was only right that the focus should be on developing the talents of UK scientists, the importance of assisting the development of science in other countries should not be overlooked. The UK draws great benefit from the global exchange of talent, said Lord May, and as a result should invest in international science, and particularly in building the scientific capacity of developing countries.
'We must continue to invest in the education and training of future generations of scientists, both here and abroad, nurturing their creative talent and providing them with the environment, tools and incentives to make the advances that improve the prosperity and quality of our lives,' Lord May concluded.