A new dawn for science?

With chemistry and physics courses closing around the UK, the opening of a cutting-edge laboratory provides a ray of hope for the future, report Lucy Hodges and Sarah Cassidy
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The Independent Online

The closure of university science departments has become a regular staple of newspaper headlines. What must the public make of it? Science is really important to the nation's economy, says Tony Blair. Yes, but not important enough to prevent Reading or Newcastle universities deciding to close physics or Exeter and King's College London shutting chemistry.

So, last week's unveiling of a massive new science centre at London Metropolitan University, a stone's throw from the Holloway Road, north London, and the new Arsenal Emirates Stadium, has had everyone gasping in wonder.

"No other university I know of is doing anything like this," says Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK. "It's a real pleasure to see a university where the vice chancellor and his staff have said science is important for us and our students and vital for the country. This is a fantastic new facility. I congratulate London Met on bucking the trend."

The £30m building, paid for with a £10m grant from the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce), with the remainder coming from the university's own resources, is a sight to behold. The centrepiece is a superlab that stretches as far as the eye can see. With its 280 individual workstations, each with its own interactive computer, a flat screen and audiovisual equipment, it enables students to watch and replicate experiments.

Twelve difference classes - from undergraduate to PhD level - can take place at the same time. Academics sit at hubs checking on students' work or move around the huge space, tuned in to the students via headsets. It is, the university claims, the largest and most advanced teaching lab in Europe.

Spread over four levels, the centre also accommodates the most modern labs for research into HIV and microbiology, as well as multi-purpose sports science facilities, including a national basketball court with a floor made from recycled aircraft tyres.

It replaces grungy 40-year-old facilities in the tower, the 13-storey building at the heart of the university. Brian Bointon, head of health and human sciences, describes the old science labs as "dreadful", mainly consisting of wooden benches. Brian Roper, London Met's vice chancellor, reinforces the point. "They were no longer fit for purpose," he says. "They did not comply with building regulations and were based on a different concept of what students were like and what they did - and there were increasing concerns about safety."

Seven years ago, Roper and his colleagues took what looks today like a far-sighted decision. Resolving that science was at the core of what London Met stood for, they decided to invest in new teaching facilities for their 37,000 students. It was a gamble, Roper admits. "It was not obvious that we were doing the right thing at the time," he says. "But now we are 10 years ahead of any other provider."

It took five years to organise the funding, the planning and the design, and two years to construct. The gestation was fraught. "There were those who cautioned against a lab with 280 work stations," he says. But Roper pressed ahead and is now beaming at the result.

The science centre could be just the kind of thing needed to put London Met on the map. Formerly North London Polytechnic, the university has had a colourful history - with student protests and occupations in the 1970s - and has been famous for its rabbit warren of Victorian and modern buildings, including the Riba award-winning graduate centre, designed by Daniel Libeskind.

Five years ago, as the University of North London, it merged with London Guildhall University to form one of the largest universities in the capital. Again, the merger was a savvy move. It was designed to protect two universities that served the deprived, multi-ethnic communities of north and east London and that were competing for students. Moreover London Met has less than stellar rankings in the research assessment exercise. It comes towards the bottom of the research league table and achieves a 3a for science, which means it receives no money from Hefce for research.

The new building should help to burnish its reputation for teaching and research, and position it as a new university that takes science seriously and is prepared to invest in it. The emphasis will be on the health and human sciences rather than the hard sciences. That is not to say, however, that London Met avoids the hard sciences. It is one of only three universities left in London - along with Imperial and University College London - to offer single honours chemistry, although very few students study it. However, since the department of health and human sciences was formed in 2003 out of biological and applied sciences and health and sports science, the number of students taking science has increased by more than 50 per cent - from 1,100 to 1,700. "We run courses that attract students," says Bointon. "They are health related and that appears to be what students want to do."

London Met has carried out some research into what teenagers think of science and has found that the vast majority of 15- to 18-year-olds (71 per cent) have a positive view of it. It is factors such as the way science is taught, the teaching facilities and their view of science as a career that affects whether they choose to study it.

Far from finding science uncool, they regard chemistry, physics, geography and biology as cooler than history, drama, foreign languages and business studies. These findings should provide comfort to universities agonising about whether they can keep expensive physics and chemistry departments going.

There was more good news last week about science at a national level. On the same day as London Met was showing journalists around its new science centre, the Higher Education Funding Council announced an extra £75m to save struggling science departments from closure. That pot will give universities an extra £1,000 for every student studying physics, chemistry and some engineering courses.

It is well known that university science teaching is underfunded, according to Dr Cotgreave. "The Higher Education Funding Council has got the funding formula wrong for universities," he says. "Two years ago they reduced the money available for science - which is difficult to reconcile with the Government's priorities."

However, it was immediately clear that the £75m was not adequate to save physics at Reading, which is running at a deficit of £600,000 a year. "We welcome the announcement but it will not affect our plans for physics," says Tony Downes, pro vice chancellor of Reading University. "Last year we had 169 physics students, so this will bring us an extra £170,000 a year. It just isn't enough for the department to break even and we cannot continue to cross-subsidise it."

The statistics are sobering. It costs on average £8,000 a year to put a student through a science degree compared with around £4,000 for a humanities degree. Universities receive £5,000 a year towards science teaching costs from Hefce, as well as income from student fees, leaving many with a shortfall.

Since 1999, as many as 67 science courses have been shut down. Although 29 new degrees have been launched over this period, that still means a net drop of 38 courses. "Hefce has not taken science as seriously as you would expect, given what the Prime Minister and Chancellor have said about science being so important to the economy," says Cotgreave.

All of which explains why London Met's new centre is such a cause for celebration.

And what the students think...

The students at London Met are ecstatic about the new science facilities that replace run-down labs they used previously. For Alma Zaplluzha, who came to London from Kosovo and is studying for a PhD in immunology, the best thing is that students now have everything on tap at their workstations. The internet and all the lab equipment is in one place. Previously they had to walk to the computer room from the lab to access the web.

"It's amazing compared with what we had before," says Victoria Eames, 24, a biochemistry undergrad- uate. "I believe that these facilities will encourage people to study science because there's more potential to learn and to do more and better experiments."

Amara Anyogu, 24, a PhD student of food microbiology, agrees. "When I was an undergraduate over the road, we had much smaller labs," she says. "It was cramped and we were having to share our space with so many people."

The research students are pleased with the new research lab where they can meet and communicate with one another. In the past, they didn't have a place where they could get together.

"Now we can share ideas and knowledge and boost one another's confidence," says Zaplluzha.