The United Kingdom produces as many science and technology graduates as its competitors, but only a minority opt for a career in science, according to a report by the Institute of Employment Studies.
Richard Pearson, author of the IES study, says that there is little sign of a strong market demand for new science and technology graduates. "This could explain why students are voting with their feet and declining to enter for science and technology subjects in higher education where empty places abound," he says.
Mr Pearson's conclusions are based in part on graduation rates among 18 to 25-year-olds compiled for the European Commission in the early 1990s. In the UK, the number of students qualifying in science and technology per 1,000 graduates was 14.3. This compares with France's 15.7; Germany's 8.6; Japan's 12.4; and the United States' 13.3.
These figures relate to a period before the boom in numbers entering higher education and an analysis of more recent figures would almost certainly show the UK in an even more favourable light.
On the basis of 1994 data on first destinations of science graduates, Mr Pearson concludes that a relatively small number actually go into science and technology careers. In physics, for example, less than half of the graduates go into areas such as industry, commerce and teaching and of these only 23 per cent opt for a career in R&D.
By international standards, the UK does not employ enough scientists and technologists in R&D. For the UK, the number employed as researchers per 1,000 of the labour force is 4.5. This compares with 5.3 in France; 6 in Germany; 6.9 in the US; and 7.8 in Japan. A significant number of the researchers are employed in the defence industry and most of these are working on projects completely unrelated to the civil sector.
Mr Pearson, who presented his report at a recent gathering of the Science Policy Support Group in London, says that overall his findings do not appear to support those lobbying for more scientists and engineers. "It could be argued that even if there was, say, a 20 per cent increase in demand overnight, then the supply of new graduates would not be a problem," he added.