None the less, the Government intends to raise by 50 per cent the number of scientists graduating by the middle of the decade, compared to numbers in the mid-1980s, even though the number of jobs open to scientists in both industry and the public sector has been declining for five years.
At the height of the economic boom in the late 1980s, British industry was employing 188,000 staff in research and development, but this figure shrunk to 165,000 by 1990, the most recent year for which figures are available. Over the entire decade, compared to the numbers employed in 1981, some 30,000 staff have been 'lost' from industrial research and development.
In parallel, between 1983 and 1991, the Government reduced the staff it employs on civil research and development by nearly 18,000, a fall of nearly 47 per cent. During this period, government policy has been that industry should perform more research itself, and that public funds should be withdrawn from 'near-market' research activities.
Government officials pointed out that several large British industrial companies were now shifting some of their research effort overseas.
The Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, Professor William Stewart, yesterday gave a powerful endorsement of the importance attached to science: 'As we move towards the next century the countries best able to compete will be those which harness and apply science and technology to national advantage - to health care, the environment, and to the quality of life generally. To achieve this, the UK needs a strong innovative and flexible R&D base, which will underpin our economic performance.'
But the official figures reveal that total funding for scientists in university laboratories has declined in real terms between 1987 and 1991. In the current financial year, which officials described as a 'reasonably good' one for science, the Government has allocated only pounds 37m more in real terms to basic scientific research than it did five years ago.
The report, published by the Cabinet Office, contradicts claims made by Kenneth Baker when he was Secretary of State for Education and Science, that he secured a significant real-terms increase in the funds devoted to basic science.
Professor Stewart warned that some areas of research might have to be dropped because 'it is better to be frontline participants and leaders in a few areas of excellence, rather than spread our resources too thinly'. The life sciences might take priority over more traditional areas such as physics, officials suggested.
Despite this, the figures show that unemployment is highest among biological sciences graduates, only 71 per cent of whom entered permanent UK employment in 1990. In contrast, some 89 per cent of engineers who graduated in 1990 got permanent jobs.
Annual Review of government- funded research and development 1992; HMSO; pounds 28.Reuse content