UK physics strong, but funding still vulnerable

October 9, 2008

The broadly positive findings of a review of physics in the UK have been welcomed by the sector, along with its warnings about low interest among schoolchildren.

The "Review of UK Physics", which was led by Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, states that UK physics enjoys an "excellent" international standing, particularly in areas such as astrophysics, and has seen a modest increase in student numbers in recent years.

It also highlights high average citation rates in academic publications and says it is a "pervasive" discipline in UK higher education, with much physics research taking place in non-physics departments.

However, Phil Willis, chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, noted that the review was critical of the Science and Technology Facilities Council's handling of its budget allocation, and said it had "damaged the reputation of UK physics".

Universities UK picked up on the report's analysis of the teaching of physics in schools, adding that "much depends on ensuring there is a broad-based supply of skilled young people in this area".

Professor Wakeham also argues that the dependence on a small number of funding streams makes physics departments vulnerable, and suggests that physicists need to reclaim the intellectual ownership of parts of their discipline.

John Denham, the Universities Secretary, said he was pleased by the report's findings on the strength of the sector internationally, and pledged that the Government "remains committed to investing in the variety of physics disciplines to maintain this position".

Professor Wakeham said: "The value of physics to the UK is such that relative weakness in its structures and in the skills pipeline must be addressed. We have identified these areas, so it is now a case of strengthening them so that UK physics can continue to grow in stature."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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