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Chemistry departments are closing because sciences are out of favour. But without them, will the UK lose something more valuable than Bunsen burners? Sarah Halasz reports
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The Independent Online

To scientists, it is nothing short of an epidemic. Over the last 10 years, more than 30 per cent of university physics departments have shut their doors. In that period, 10 chemistry departments have also disappeared. The epidemic of closures is expected to have a big effect on the UK's research capabilities.

To scientists, it is nothing short of an epidemic. Over the last 10 years, more than 30 per cent of university physics departments have shut their doors. In that period, 10 chemistry departments have also disappeared. The epidemic of closures is expected to have a big effect on the UK's research capabilities.

Citing financial troubles and declining student interest, university vice-chancellors continue to axe physical science courses; three chemistry departments closed this year alone. With university students choosing more glamorous courses such as media studies, the sciences just aren't financially viable for some cash-strapped universities any longer. The number of students reading chemistry at university has decreased almost 20 per cent since 1996, from 13,923 to 11,625 according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The number of physics students has decreased by just over 9 per cent, from 9,990 to 9,045. And all this while the number of total university students has increased by about 11 per cent.

The Government is now trying to reverse this trend. In the recently published spending review, the Government pledged to pump £1bn into research to thrust the UK into the forefront of scientific innovation. And, although he hasn't yet released any statement to this effect, the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, is expected to give the Higher Education Funding Council the power to protect endangered subjects.

Still, industry executives worry that they've already started seeing the consequences of the decreasing number of students reading sciences. And these effects could be tremendously negative, some say, if the problem is left to fester.

Richard Brown, head of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, says the Government must tackle the problem now before the UK economy begins to suffer.

"It's a developing problem," Brown says. "And, unless we tackle it now, it will become a serious problem. It's already affecting the capabilities of some companies, and it will affect research capabilities in the future."

Just how much the declining interest has already scarred industry is hard to measure. Graduates with degrees in the sciences find jobs in numerous business sectors, from IT to pharmaceuticals, so evaluating each company's financial success would be nearly impossible. But noting anecdotal evidence wouldn't be. Graduate recruiters for these companies have expressed concern with both the number and skill level of their British applicants, and rather than suffer the consequences of a depleted supply of competent scientists, companies have started looking elsewhere for their workers. "A lot of people in our industry are recruiting more and more people from outside the UK," says Dr Dave Compton, a business manager from the organic chemical company Robinson Brothers. "Graduates from outside the UK - and certainly from outside Europe - are now prepared to move to places like the UK to work in science-based positions."

With the easing of immigration regulations several years ago and with the inclusion of Poland and the Czech Republic in the European Union, Compton says he has seen an influx of Chinese, Indian and Eastern European chemists acquiring jobs in the UK's science-based professions.

Other industry recruiters, including Ian MacKinnon, the innovations manager at chemical manufacturer Thomas Swan, say they have witnessed the same trend.

"The British are in that sense becoming a declining proportion of those who can do the job," MacKinnon says. "Britons are simply being outgunned in this area - significantly outgunned. It must be a cultural thing of some sort because we don't see the same reduction in interest in people from other countries."

Not only are recruiters stretching their efforts internationally, but they have also started looking for students with multidisciplinary talents rather than specific skills to open their searches up to more candidates, says Sue Fryer, head of business and industry for the Institute of Physics. "Whereas companies would have liked someone with a physics degree, now they make do with anybody with a broad physical science background," she says.

And, as the supply of able-bodied science-skilled Britons decreases, demand for them continues to increase. A healthy job market and an industry-wide hunger for innovation have opened up numerous new science-related positions.

These trends have worried Fryer and her colleagues at the Institute of Physics. So the group has devised several strategies to try to increase the number of students reading physics at universities.

Most of their plans start in the classroom. The group recently initiated a means-tested bursary scheme that awards £1,000 per year to students reading physics. It's also working on manuals to help guide physics teachers who don't have a background in the subject. Fewer and fewer people have opted to teach physics, forcing primary and secondary schools to hire science teachers with little knowledge in the subject, says Fryer.

This crisis in teaching is something that worries most industry and university recruiters. "All of us who have studied the subject did so because we passed through the hands of somebody who made it fascinating for us," she says. "Youngsters today don't get the satisfaction of finding out how satisfying, how fun science can be."

The Council for Industry and Higher Education's Brown describes a cyclical danger. "If we don't have enough people studying these subjects, then we will not have enough people to teach them in the future. We already do not have enough in secondary schools, so you have generalists trying to teach those subjects."

In the 1980s, 40 per cent of people thought of chemistry as a noble field of study. Today, that number has plummeted to about 20 per cent. Repairing the shattered image of chemistry - and of other equally unpopular sciences - is one of the most important steps in increasing the numbers of A-level, undergraduate and graduate science students, experts say.

"One of the answers is to better explain to students and those who advise them the real opportunities that are open to them through studying these subjects," Brown says. "Students have a weird impression that science equals difficult courses and weirdos in white coats."

Another possible solution is extra funding. After an investigation into science and innovation in the UK, the Government's 10-year plan for the advancement of science proposes to allocate £1bn to improving research capabilities. But while the Institute of Physics and other organisations praise the move, some feel the Government is overlooking key ingredients in the recipe to improve the UK's science industry.

Rodney Townsend, of the Royal Society of Chemistry, says: "The Government could do an enormous amount of good by putting a pulse - a small amount of money in the next two or three years - to stop closures of university science courses. The Government needs to put in a relatively small amount of money to ensure that chemistry departments and other departments that are under threat at the moment are kept going.

"Every time a chemistry department closes, it's black news and people shake their heads," Townsend continues. "Able students doing their chemistry A-levels may ask, 'Is this a safe option? Chemistry's closing.'"

And then, Townsend fears, interest in the courses will decrease yet again. More departments will close, fewer graduates will go into teaching, industry will suffer and the cycle will start all over again.

Unless the Government puts its money into education - where interest in science is crafted and maintained - the cycle will continue. "All of this strategy will come to nothing if we don't get more school pupils studying science," he says. "And that is the really big challenge for us all."

'ALL MY FRIENDS ASK: "WHY DO YOU WANT TO DO THAT?"'

It certainly wasn't peer pressure that persuaded Josh Rowlands to read chemistry at the University of Bristol. In fact, if he had listened to his friends, he probably wouldn't be studying it at all. "It's seen as quite a weird thing to do," says Rowlands, 20, who has just finished his first undergraduate year. "All my friends are like: 'Why do you want to do that?' "

But, for Rowlands, chemistry never seemed quite as "weird" as his friends seem to think it is. At Latymer Grammar School in Edmonton, north London, Rowlands had a teacher who, he says, got him quite interested in it. He went further than the textbook.

"He was very learned about chemistry, and he's quite passionate about it," Rowlands says.

This passion for teaching science is becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon in secondary schools. The number of acceptances to physics PGCE was 568 in 1993, but that number had dropped to 323 in 2002. When the skilled science teachers stopped coming up through the system, the schools started turning to teachers with a shallower depth of knowledge.

All the same, despite having had some highly skilled teachers, Rowlands doesn't think he will pursue a career in science research after he graduates. "I can't really see myself working in a lab all day, to be perfectly honest," he says. "And I don't think any of my friends are planning to do a PhD, but you never know. It could capture our imaginations."

Still, he says, jobs in the sciences are financially fruitful enough for him to consider working in the industry: "It gives you numerous options. You can go into the City, and people with science degrees are valued there. But when I arranged my course I didn't really think about it in terms of career. It was just something I was interested in." SH

education@independent.co.uk

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