Science Courses: Britain needs scientists with the creative touch

With technology changing so quickly, matching courses to industry's future needs is a big headache.
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The Independent Online
What kind of engineers and scientists does Britain need in the 21st century, and what skills should they have? These are some of the questions being asked by the Institute for Employment Studies, in a study carried out for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

According to Dr Lesley Thompson, programme manager, general engineering at the EPSRC, we don't know enough about what the nation's skill needs are. "While we know we produce a certain number of PhDs and MScs a year, we would like to be better informed about what the UK's requirements are, so we can get a better match between what we produce and what is needed," he says.

Hearsay evidence suggests that skills shortages could be the key to the United Kingdom failing to realise its potential in the next century, he adds. Skill shortages have already been identified in chemical engineering.

Nick Jagger, a research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, who is involved in the study, explains that the research will provide quantitative evidence about employer demand, but will also look at the kind of transferable expertise - communication skills, and the ability to work in teams - that employers also seek.

One university that is trying to develop complementary new forms of PhD training to produce engineers with transferable skills is Salford, in the north-west of England. Professor James Powell, director of the Graduate School at Salford, started a new form of doctoral training, the Engineering Doctoral Programme, as an experiment when he was teaching at Brunel University five years ago. Cohorts of 15 PhD students on four-year courses at five universities, including Brunel, spent three years in industry, and the fourth taking short support courses. The idea was that students would tackle exciting, innovative and inventive projects, but they would also learn those other skills which industry wants, for example, the ability to communicate with accountants and managing directors, as well as with technical colleagues, and facility in writing reports.

The EPSRC has just completed a study of this experiment, which was subsequently extended to a number of other universities. According to Professor Powell, the study shows that this is a pertinent way of training engineers to take on doctoral challenges, and to prepare them for a role in industry as innovative and creative leaders.

In his own university, Brunel, another project funded by the European Union involves 35 doctoral students working with industry to try to exploit the information superhighway for the good of the north-west of England. "The students not only have bright ideas and develop them, they also test them out in field work, evaluate them, hone them and make them better for the end user," says Prof Powell.

The scheme involves students working on a range of projects. One, for example, is investigating the possibilities of virtual business breakfasts, another is looking at ways of selectively reading e-mail.

One piece of work - an attempt to develop a virtual chamber of commerce - has been so successful that a group of academics from the Manchester area has been invited to Malaysia to tell the Malaysian prime minister about it.

"We must continue to enable PhD students to be creative. We need inventors and innovators. We must not lose that, but these people must be able to communicate with business," says Prof Powell.

Another key issue, according to Dr David Clark, director of engineering and science at the EPSRC, is that employer demand seems to vary between sectors. For PhDs it is high, for example, in pharmaceuticals. In other areas, such as construction and manufacturing, PhDs are not as highly sought after. There the demand is for first or Masters degree graduates.

A third area of major concern for the council is the willingness of young people to go on to do PhD training in future, as more and more of them complete their first degrees thousands of pounds in debt. A further serious worry is the ageing laboratory equipment in many universities. In some cases, it is up to 30 years out of date.

The whole issue of continuing professional development is also becoming increasingly important. Whereas 30 or 40 years ago you could train for a PhD and apply the knowledge gained for the next three or four decades of work, now knowledge is decaying at an increasingly fast rate. Science and technology are moving so rapidly that within five or 10 years of someone entering the workforce their knowledge is out of date. What is needed, says Dr Clark, is regular training modules to keep engineers and scientists up to date. Such is the concern in industry that British Aerospace, for example, has set up its own university to ensure that staff are kept at the cutting edge of what is happening.

At Masters level, people are increasingly looking for part-time rather than full-time training. They want to start work, and add a second degree in their spare time. With the growth in management studies, more and more science and engineering graduates are doing MBAs rather than higher science or engineering degrees, to move up the management ladder more quickly.

"Many British universities are concerned about what is happening in the Far Eastern economies," says Dr Clark. "Up until now they have taken a lot of Masters students from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Korea. Now that the pound is strong and those economies are in crisis, universities are expecting to lose large numbers of students from that region."