Shortage of scientists threatens UK economy

Aug 14 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Britain risks running out of scientists because faults in the education system are leading many young people are turning their back on science and technology, Britain's biggest business group has warned.

According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), thousands of potential scientists are being lost because of a stripped-down science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and uninspiring careers advice.

Ands as a result, the CBI warns, the UK's world-class science base is being eroded at a time when new international competitors are emerging and traditional rivals are getting stronger.

So serious is the problem that the number of A level pupils studying physics has fallen 56 per cent in 20 years. Over the same period those studying A level chemistry has dropped 37 per cent.

Meanwhile, the number of graduates who leave university with a degree in physics, engineering or technology has slumped by a third over the last decade, with only 32,000 undergraduates qualifying in these subjects last year.

But demand for jobs such as chemists, physicists, engineers, and lab technicians has been rising consistently, and by 2014 the country will need to have found 2.4 million new people with these skills to meet expected need.

The disparity between supply and demand is such that some British-based businesses are already starting to recruit from overseas because of a shortage of candidates from the UK, the CBI says.

At the same time China, India, Brazil and Eastern Europe are producing hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers every year to drive their development and growth.

"Employers are increasingly worried about the long-term decline in numbers studying A level physics, chemistry and maths, and the knock-on effect on these subjects, and engineering, at university," said CBI Director-General, Richard Lambert.

They see, at first hand, the young people who leave school and university looking for a job, and compare them to what they need - and increasingly are looking overseas for graduates."

A major factor in the plummeting number of students taking science subjects at A level is a chronic shortage of specialist teachers. A quarter of secondary schools in Britain do not have a teacher sufficiently trained in physics, only one in five science teachers has a specialist physics qualification, while one in four chemistry teachers has a specialist qualification in the subject.

Adding to these concerns, the vacancy rate for all maths and science teachers is 50 per cent higher than for any other subjects.

More worrying still, one in three physics teachers is expected to retire in the next ten years while up to half of all new science teachers leave the profession within five years because of the workload, poor pupil behaviour, and low salaries.

One ramification of these shortages is that over three-quarters of school children study Double Award Science, which crams three disciplines in to the time normally given to two, rather than three individual disciplines. This can leave teenagers ill-equipped for A level and the lack of practical skills is often exposed at university where many tutors have to organise catch-up courses, the CBI argues.

"It is clear we need more specialised teachers to share their enthusiasm for science and fire the imaginations of pupils, and to persuade them to study the core individual disciplines to high levels," Richard Lambert said.

"We must smash the stereotypes that surround science and re-brand it as desirable and exciting; a gateway to some fantastic career opportunities. But the UK risks being knocked off its perch as a world-leader in science, engineering and technology. We cannot afford for this to happen.

"The Government does have time to tackle these problems before they become critical. However this means it must set itself more challenging targets, not settle for easily achievable ones which do not deliver for the needs of the country quickly enough."