Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine


  1.1  The Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine would like to emphasise the importance of science and technology, both in terms of direct benefits to the UK economy and to society in areas such as healthcare and our cultural heritage. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in their speeches to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, stressed the importance of improving the knowledge and skills of the workforce so that Britain can continue to compete in high-tech sectors of the global economy.

  1.2  The government's 10 year framework for science[55] estimates that academic research underpins up to 5% of sales in some industries. All high-tech industries are based ultimately on the fruits of academic research, and in our field the figure must be nearer to 100%. These academic developments must be translated into industrial products, either by or in collaboration with industry, and then used to develop new clinical techniques of direct benefit to patients. Physical scientists and engineers are vital at all stages of this process, whether working in academia, industry or as clinical scientists in the NHS.

  1.3  In the multidisciplinary field of medical science represented by the Institute, this problem is compounded by the well-attested erosion of academic medicine.

  1.4  Despite the need to improve the scientific and technical skills base, recent years have seen a worrying decline in provision of science courses, particularly in fundamental sciences such as physics and chemistry.

  1.5  There is a vicious circle in that decline in science course uptake and places not only has direct implications for the academic, industrial and NHS workforce, but also impacts on the availability and skills of the next generation of science teachers, fuelling a spiral of decline.

  1.6  The problem is worse than the estimates in the 10 year framework suggest. For example the number of HEIs offering physics courses declined from 79 to 53 between 1994 and 2001[56]. About 30% of physics departments closed between 1994 and 2004. Since 1997, the number of materials science undergraduates have fallen by 40%, despite this being a subject with strong industrial demand.

  1.7  Increasing participation in higher education means that more students from poorer backgrounds will enter the system. It is important, both in terms of social justice and for the national economy, that these students have the opportunity to study a full range of scientific disciplines.

  1.8  The absence of specific science subjects such as Physics will lead to "science deserts". This will work against the government's regional development policies, as set out in the 10 year framework for science.


  2.1  The problem is sometimes attributed to poor student uptake, sometimes to the cost of science course provision relative to per capita funding, and sometimes to the effects of overselectivity in research funding. All three elements are important, and there is a complex interplay between them.

  2.2  Poor uptake of science courses at university is strongly linked to poor uptake of science A-levels at school. This is a problem common to degree courses requiring specific A-levels, which for example also affects modern languages. In the case of the sciences it is compounded by the fact that science A-levels are perceived as being difficult and likely to impact on a candidate's overall A-level score.

  2.3  There is a recognised shortage of teachers qualified in physical sciences. For example, it is believed that the majority of physics teachers currently are life sciences graduates. This is likely to impact on the quality of their teaching in non-specialist areas and hence on the enthusiasm imparted to students. No central data exists to verify this, and the government has recently agreed to conduct a survey to find out exactly who is teaching physics in schools.

  2.4  There is a lack of recognition of the importance of basic science subjects with candidates preferring the more fashionable areas of science. For example, forensic science courses are burgeoning, allegedly due in part to popular television series, but there are apparently up to 200 applicants for each job in the field.

  2.5  Against the background of poor uptake, it is easy to see that science course closures may be driven by market forces. Such courses are expensive to run, with high fixed infrastructure costs that cannot easily be met with the income from small classes. Although universities may choose to invest strategically in expensive sciences, it is hard to see why they should chose to do so unless there is a clear benefit in sight for the university or earmarked funding is available.

  2.6  These developments cannot be treated in isolation from the issue of overselectivity in research funding through the RAE. Forthcoming replacement of "make-or-break" grade boundaries with departmental quality profiles is a welcome initiative, but it remains to be seen how far these changes will address the problems of the current system. Overselectivity is extremely damaging to departments rated four in the current RAE, who have lost 42% of their funding since 2001. Faced with the combination of this underfunding and poor uptake of expensive courses, many universities feel that they have no choice but to close departments that are merely "nationally excellent".

  2.7  The 10 year framework recognises the geographical disparity in research funding. This disparity is due to the effects of RAE over-selectivity, and contributes directly to the development of "science deserts".

  2.8  Establishment of "teaching only" departments is sometimes proposed as a means of addressing this problem. However, in science good teaching at degree level requires a research base. The Higher Education white paper[57] cites a report[58] on the interactions between teaching and research in HE, which found that it is not necessary for academics to be involved in research in order to provide excellent teaching. Whilst this was the overall conclusion of the report, as far as science is concerned it actually came to the opposite conclusion, stating: "for students in some disciplines some of the staff at least do need to be involved with research", and "we find that this relationship is generally much closer, in the science-based subjects". As far as teaching-only institutions are concerned, the authors stated that "it might be difficult for such institutions to teach very research-intensive subjects".

  2.9  Having less physicists in hospitals and education will affect other professions because they are reliant within their own professional and educational development for training provided by physicists, for example radiographers, medical staff (radiologists, oncologists etc). Also other industries that have relied on this source of expertise will in future suffer a shortfall.


  3.1  The government's recognition of the problem of science course provision in the 10 year framework, with initiatives to examine the effect on access at regional level and the model for funding teaching, is welcome.

  3.2  Initiatives to identify strategically important subjects and make additional funding available through HEFCE are also welcome. However, we agree with other commentators[59] that this funding is needed urgently. We caution against a lengthy investigative process, during which time further departments will be lost (as indeed they have been since this initiative was announced).

  3.3  A serious policy issue is, to what extent should HEIs, essentially independent institutions, be encouraged or required to make available places match likely employment demand, as has been done by capping medical student numbers? Given the amount of public money invested in HE, it does not seem unreasonable that HEFCE should be required to steer funding in this way. However, other initiatives are needed as well.

  3.4  A crucial element in increasing uptake of science courses at university, and hence the technical skill levels of the workforce, lies in strengthening science and mathematics teaching at school. The seeds of mathematical illiteracy, in particular, are sown at an early age, and attention must be given to mathematical aspects of early years education if current shortcomings are to be redressed effectively.

  3.5  We support improved links between schools and universities, including the partnerships, student associates scheme and ambassadorships discussed in the framework paper.

  3.6  There needs to be strengthened careers advice in schools, including careers advisers with scientific backgrounds who are familiar with the range of careers open to science graduates.

  3.7  The White Paper comments that 40% of mathematics graduates are needed to go into teaching in order to meet government targets. This is a tall order given the pay and status of teachers relative to other possible career choices for graduate mathematicians, who are much sought after in the financial sector. The new higher education funding regime makes it even less realistic.

  3.8  Similarly, better salaries and career structures are needed to encourage good science graduates to remain in science research and university teaching. This is especially true with the advent of higher tuition fees. Salaries for graduates in research and junior academic posts are already unattractive, and will fall further in real terms when fee repayment begins. Thus they will become even less attractive relative to the higher salaries offered to much sough-after graduates in subjects such as mathematics and physics by industry and the financial sector.

  3.9  A mechanism is required to ensure that the teaching role of academics is genuinely accorded equal status with research, particularly in research-intensive institutions that have traditionally emphasised the importance of research over teaching.

  3.10  In our field of clinical science, the recent StLaR report[60] has recognised that "Very few individuals from the NHS move into FE/HE appointments and do not see fulltime positions in this sector as attractive for salary, career progression, job satisfaction and other reasons". Thus academic salaries are now unable to compete even with those offered by the NHS, which are not usually thought of as particularly generous.

  3.11  The 10 year framework recommends that the relevant sector skills councils should consult on future training needs for science, engineering and technology. This work should include ensuring that course provision is sufficient to meet regional and national needs. We suggest that the sector skills council relevant to healthcare, Skills for Health, should also be involved in this consultation to ensure that the numbers and skills base of NHS scientists is sufficient to reverse the current decline and ensure that the tremendous opportunities opened by initiatives such as the human genome project are realised.

February 2005

55   Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14. HM Treasury, 2004. Back

56   Physics: Building a Flourishing Future. Report of the Inquiry into Undergraduate Physics. Institute of Physics, 2001. Back

57   The Future of Higher Education. Department for Education and Skills, 2003. Back

58   Interactions between Research, Teaching and Other Academic Activities. HEFCE, 2000. Back

59   Eg articles by Brian Iddon MP and Peter Main, Science in Parliament, Summer 2004. Back

60   StLaR HR Plan Project. Phase 1 Consultation Report. September-December 2003. Department for Education and Skills and Department of Health, 2004. Back

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