Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Brian Fulton, University of York

  This inquiry is, perhaps, somewhat overdue, but very welcome. The high and continuing rate of closures of science departments over the last decade has been very worrying and those of us involved in Higher Education have long believed it will lead to future problems for the UK.

  I will not dwell on the reasons for the closures as this will no doubt be well documented in other submissions. Briefly, it results from two pressures from government, the push for universities to be self sustaining businesses and the push for "excellence" without regard to the consequences. These two recent factors, coupled with a long term underfunding (the unit of resource allocated for science student is manifestly too low) has brought about a situation where many universities can no longer afford to run science courses.

  I would like instead to illustrate the danger of these continuing closures by drawing attention to the threat to our future provision of people trained in nuclear skills. My interest in this, and the reason for drawing it to the Committee's attention, is that I served on the cross-department government working group which looked at this recently. Our report was published by the DTI two years ago ( and drew attention to the looming shortage of personnel with expertise in nuclear physics—the "nuclear skills shortage". The reasons why this is a problem for the UK are detailed in the report, and include the need for people to enter nuclear medicine (20% of us will have a nuclear medical treatment at some point), the power industry (25% of our electricity comes from this sources and defense (we still maintain a nuclear deterrent).

  One important contribution to meeting the UK's nuclear skills needs is to provide a steady output from universities of students who have covered nuclear physics in their degree courses. If students have not encountered such material in the final years of their course, they are unlikely to consider the field for a career. In most universities the final year, advanced courses are provided by active researchers and so reflect the research activities in the department. However there are now only eight universities in England which have active nuclear physics research groups. Consequently the number of graduates who are likely to consider nuclear related employment is small, and a threat to our efforts to avert the impending skills shortage. This diminished number of departments is the result of years of underfunding and contraction of research in physics departments to those areas which are "in vogue" at any given time and hence likely to bring in the most research funding. Any Vice-Chancellor in the country will have no truck with arguments that continuing a research area is important for the UK's strategic interests—in the present climate he or she is solely interested in the financial viability of each department.

  We are in fact about to see an immediate worsening of the nuclear skills problem as a result of another physics department closure. It appears, and the Committee may be able to verify this, that Keele University is in the process of withdrawing its Physics degree course. Keele is one of those few departments with a nuclear physics research group, so within a few months we may see a reduction to just seven universities in England with active nuclear physics research, and so giving advanced undergraduate courses in the field. This loss of another of the few places where graduates can be interested in nuclear science has not come about by any conscious act, it is simply another fallout from the financial pressures which continue to cause institutions to close physics departments. In the extreme, if such unplanned actions continue, it is possible that the UK could end up with no active nuclear physics research in universities (which would have serious consequences for UK national security) and no advanced nuclear physics being taught to undergraduates (with serious consequences for the already grave nuclear skills issue).

  Although I have chosen to highlight the serous consequences of unplanned, ad-hoc closures of physics departments in terms of the nuclear skills issue, it is possible that similar problems may be developing in other specialist areas. I hope that the Committee will be able to raise the very serious problem which has been allowed to develop through the long-term underfunding of science departments. The country will continue to need a steady output of students trained in nuclear science, but without some action it is possible that universities will fail to provide this.

January 2005

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