Memorandum from the Institute of Physics
and Engineering in Medicine
1. THE SEVERITY
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
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
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
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. NATURE OF
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
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
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
cites a report
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
3. WHAT SHOULD
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
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
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
3.10 In our field of clinical science, the
recent StLaR report
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.
55 Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14.
HM Treasury, 2004. Back
Physics: Building a Flourishing Future. Report of the Inquiry
into Undergraduate Physics. Institute of Physics, 2001. Back
The Future of Higher Education. Department for Education and
Skills, 2003. Back
Interactions between Research, Teaching and Other Academic Activities.
HEFCE, 2000. Back
Eg articles by Brian Iddon MP and Peter Main, Science in Parliament,
Summer 2004. Back
StLaR HR Plan Project. Phase 1 Consultation Report. September-December
2003. Department for Education and Skills and Department of Health,