Poor pay and low status have to be tackled if careers in science are to be made more attractive to young people, according to a report out this week, writes Kam Patel.
The study, Contract or Career? A Career in Science, prepared by an alliance of unions including the Association of University Teachers and the Institute of Professional Managers and Scientists and launched at a conference on science careers this week, says that only Sweden follows the United Kingdom practice of paying accountants more than chemical engineers. Sweden employs just 1 per cent of 35 to 45-year-olds in science and engineering, and the UK comes second from bottom of this particular table of OECD countries with 3 per cent.
David Triesman, general secretary of the AUT, says: "The poor pay that accompanies careers in science does not reflect the fact that the job market is hungry for numerate, analytical people and most undergraduates know it." He added that the academic scientists are increasingly employed on short-term, casual contracts with little security until they are in their 40s: "We leak talent away. Yorkshire Water has a better record of conserving resources than the UK does with its scientists."
The UK comes top among OECD countries surveyed in the number of science graduates produced, with 989 out of every 100,000 people qualifying as science graduates. But the unions say that this masks a great variety in the level and kind of science graduate produced. It is likely that other countries have a better record of producing the right mix of graduate scientists and this explains their better employment record, says the report.
It also says that the quality of students taking up science in the "old" universities in recent years has been "somewhat lower" than that of many other disciplines and this trend may continue.
Finding a place to study science is also easier. In the "new" universities and colleges the ratio of applications to admissions varied from 13:1 for creative arts to 5:1 for mathematics. Most sciences and engineering courses were around 5:1 to 7:1, except medicine which was 12:1.