UK must go on promoting and funding science

Sir

Your Editorial “Blair's failure” (Nature 435, 129; 200510.1038/435129a) refers to a “declining interest amongst the young in science as a career” and states that the UK government should either abandon its target of raising research and development spending from 1.9% to 2.5% by 2014, or explain it. I believe that the UK government must retain this target, as the science and engineering base is vital to future global competitiveness. For example, many wealth-creating, innovative companies will develop from Britain's world-class small high-tech companies.

If the UK government is to achieve its economic and social ambitions, it must maintain a strong, diverse supply of scientists to sustain the research base. The brightest and most creative young people need to be inspired to take up careers in science, engineering and technology. Indeed, the number of full-time undergraduates studying for first degrees in science and related subjects is actually rising. And although the media portrayed the closure of two UK university chemistry departments as a major failure, such decisions are influenced by a range of factors, including student demand and a move to concentrate research into larger departments with higher ratings.

There are difficulties in comparing the statistics from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, as a result of changes in the classification of subjects from 2002–2003 onwards. However, between 1997–1998 and 2003–2004, the number of people studying science subjects in degree courses increased by more than 30%, at a time when there was a smaller increase (about 20%) in numbers studying for first degrees overall. The largest increases over this period have been in the biological (including psychology and agriculture) and computer sciences. The rise in popularity of computer sciences is at least in part attributable to the perception of career opportunities. The increase in the numbers studying medicine and dentistry has been accompanied by a welcome increase in the participation of women.

The picture for engineering, technology and the physical sciences is more complex, with subjects such as civil engineering and chemistry attracting fewer students while others, such as astronomy and aeronautical engineering, become more popular. Overseas students account for an increasing proportion in areas such as electronic and electrical engineering, presenting opportunities to retain the best.

Overall, the proportion of students studying for UK degrees in the sciences increased from 38% to 41% between 1997–1998 and 2003–2004, a reality very different from the picture painted in the media. Of course there is no reason for complacency: A-level (17-year-old) entries in mathematics, computer sciences, physics, chemistry and biology averaged a decrease of 7.5% between 1997–1998 and 2003–2004. The UK government needs to continue to take action to enthuse people about the benefits of science education and the potential offered by careers in science.

Such government measures include ‘golden hellos’ to new science and mathematics teachers, a science and engineering ambassador scheme (in which some 8,500 young scientists act as role models for school students) and investment, jointly with the Wellcome Trust, in Science Learning Centres.

A recent MORI poll (see http://www.mori.com/polls/2004/pdf/ost.pdf) reported that 85% of people believe science makes a good contribution to society. I challenge the media to reflect the positive view of science and technology held by the majority of people in Britain today.

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King, D. UK must go on promoting and funding science. Nature 438, 24 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/438024a

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