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Physics in crisis?

The falling number of physicists in England and Wales needs to be addressed.

Physics is failing to attract fresh blood in England and Wales. A survey published last month by the University of Buckingham reveals that the number of pupils taking A-level physics has fallen by 38% since 1990. And in the same period, the proportion of new physics teachers dropped from one-third of all science teachers to just 13%.

The results ring alarm bells as far as the supply pipeline for physicists is concerned. Where will the next generation of physics researchers in England and Wales come from?

The United States has faced a similar issue — and has managed to tackle it with some degree of success. Between 1987 and 1997, the proportion of high-school students taking physics rose from 20% to 28%. This was thanks to several initiatives, including a broadening of the school curricula so that the regular physics course was supplemented by courses on application, theory and basic concepts, as well as university-level courses for more advanced students. In addition, the schools did more outreach to female students and engaged with the scientific community.

One programme has high-school students working with research scientists at the Laser Teaching Center in the State University of New York, Stony Brook. It offers a chance to do some hands-on work together with laser and optical physicists, and puts high-school students shoulder-to-shoulder with PhDs.

But despite this sort of outreach, and the increase in high-school science enrolment, the number of US students taking graduate-level physics has declined steadily in recent years. In 2003, fewer than 500 US citizens earned physics PhDs, the lowest number since the early 1960s. The result has been an increased dependence on foreign-born physicists.

Perhaps what is needed in the United States, England and Wales is to create more jobs in the field and to communicate the excitement that comes along with doing physics, whatever the setting.

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  1. Naturejobs editor

    • Paul Smaglik
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Smaglik, P. Physics in crisis?. Nature 438, 705 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7068-705a

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