The annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Southampton: Science decline is blamed on boring courses

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SCIENCE courses in school and university are boring and burdensome, young people find careers in science-based industries unattractive, and PhDs in science may be a waste of time, Robert Jackson, Parliamentary Secretary at the Office of Public Service and Science, suggested yesterday.

Mr Jackson said he was concerned that the expansion of higher education was taking place largely in the humanities and management studies, rather than in science and engineering. He thought that one of the reasons why fewer young people were taking science at A-level and going on to scientific careers might be the perception that science courses were too long and contained too much material.

He also suggested that universities were producing too many scientists trained to PhD level. One might ask whether PhD students were merely 'a device for keeping people on to do the work of technicians'. PhD students had 'wasted the best years of their lives' doing their research and, moreover, might have been given an anti-industrial bias.

His remarks came on the day that the annual meeting heard fresh evidence of the relative decline in the quality and impact of British science. According to Dr Ben Martin, of Sussex University, the decline is 'something to be worried about'. The 'Japanese option' of waiting for others to do the basic research before stepping in to develop new high-technology products was not open to the UK because the time between doing the research and developing a product was too short. 'If you sit back, you risk missing the boat.'

He was supported by David Pendlebury, of the US Institute for Scientific Information, who said the past decade 'has been a period of weakness for British science'. A study by the institute shows that in the area of clinical medicine, British scientists are producing more research papers, but the research arouses less interest internationally than it used to.

Professor A H Halsey, of Oxford University, warned that greater class inequality could result from the Government's policy of providing students with loans rather than grants. Despite the massive expansion of the universities since the 1960s, the proportion of students from working-class families had not increased over the past three decades and the Government's policies would exacerbate the situation. 'This is cold comfort for those who seek the classless society,' he warned.