Charles Clarke will order an inquiry into the developing crisis over chemistry provision in universities this week.
The Secretary of State for Education will ask the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the body in charge of university financing, to set up the investigation in the wake of three more universities axing chemistry in the past year.
The decisions - by the University of Swansea, Queen Mary, University of London, and King's College London - bring the number of universities to drop the subject in the past decade to 10, bringing claims from academics that it is "dying a slow death''.
The number of chemistry undergraduates has slumped by 25 per cent between 1997-8 and 2002-3, from 7,490 to just 5,735.
Both ministers and academics are alarmed at the effect the slump will have on the future of the subject, seen as vital to the future of both the economy and medicine.
Sir Harry Kroto, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Nobel prize-winner, said: "Chemistry made massive contributions to society in the 20th century: from penicillin, which has saved the lives of billions of people, ammonia-based fertiliser, which has increased the productivity of arable lend tenfold, to mundane objects such as the humble washing-up bowl and T-shirts and non-drip paint.
''At this crucial moment one must ask serious questions about the state of science education - chemistry in particular.
''The Government must be prepared to pay the real cost of educating scientists and engineers. Nothing exemplifies the present situation better than the case of Swansea, whose vice-chancellor has closed down chemistry, saying: 'I don't want any chemistry undergraduate, they're too expensive.'''
In addition to universities that have already axed chemistry as a first degree subject, others, including the University of Leicester, are examining whether they will continue to maintain it in view of the drop in demand and the cost of equipment needed to keep provision going.
One of the reasons for the crisis is said to be a view among youngsters that the subject is "hard and unglamorous''. This is exacerbated by the shortage of trained chemistry teachers in secondary schools, meaning fewer teachers to inspire youngsters to study the subject.
The number of trainee teachers declined steadily in the 1990s from 515 in 1996 to 369 in 1998. Applications have increased to 710 enrolling last year as a result of "golden hellos'' of £6,000 for those opting to train in the subject.Reuse content