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?The Really Big Problem for UK Science at the Moment Is Ensuring that We Will Have Enough Scientists in the Future?
11 Jul, 2007 12:54 pm
As new Prime Minister Gordon Brown unveiled his long-term vision to ?make Britain one of the best places in the world for science, research and innovation, and to deliver the ambition of a world-class skills base", Dr Peter Cotgreave, Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE)?s director, answers Scitizen?s questions about the situation of British scientific research and British universities today.
The publicly funded research, that is mostly research in the universities, is much better funded now than it was when Tony Blair came into power, about twice as much. That is clearly a very good thing. Two negative things happened during that period: one is that the money comes with more conditions attached to it, with greater control as the government tries to define what questions researchers are allowed, the place of freedom if you like. The other is that the pipeline of new researchers coming through the school system is in severe danger not to be able to produce the amount of researchers that we need.
What has been done to improve communication between research and the private sector?
There has been a massive focus on getting the universities to engage more with private company. Ten or fifteen years ago, if you had said to a young researcher, I think you should set up your own company or I think you should licence this technology to a big company, most of them would have looked at you as if you were mad. But now a large amount of the young researchers are doing that. There has been a big change within the university sector. Perhaps what has not changed yet is the private sector. I donít think the private sector is yet ready to take advantage of what is available in the public sector.
How do you evaluate the place of British universities in the world today?
It is perfectly clear that one or two universities - Oxford and Cambridge are the one that everyone talks about but there is also the University of London and the Imperial College - are still genuinely class universities and can hold their head off against any university in the world. It is not clear that it will continue to be the case if we do not sort out the difficulties of things like the flow of new people into the system and the conditions that are attached to marry freedom anymore to the research they want to. I also think that the universities are much more diverse than it used to be. It used to be a small number of college but they were all trying to do research. Now there are a lot of institutions that need to work with local businesses or do a lot of teaching and not much research and it is not clear to me if we have sorted out yet how to fund the landscape of universities in a way to make them all able to be very good in anything they do. The real issue is that the world is a much more competitive place than it used to be. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, you only really had to worry about the US, France, Germany, Australia and Japan. Now the obvious place is in China, India. There are plenty of other places like Brazil, South Africa, Russia even, where universities get into the competition..
New Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just created a Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). What is your position on this government reshuffle?
I welcome the fact that the new Prime Minister has put Innovation as a major priority for a Government department, although I would have preferred him to include the word 'science'. The challenge will be to make sure that the new Department has very strong links with the other Government ministries. For example, the really big problem for UK science at the moment is ensuring that we will have enough scientists in the future - the education system is
not delivering the science skills we need. A million children in England are taught physics by people who are not properly qualified physics teachers. This means that the new Department will have to build strong links with the new Department of Children, Schools and Families to make sure that schools are solving these problems. Likewise, unless the Department for Innovation gets closely involved with the work of the new Department for Business Enterprise, we will have difficulties making sure we realize the economic benefits of our science.
The UK Government has a very weak record of joining up the policies of its different ministries into a coherent overall picture, so, although I welcome some of what Mr Brown has done, I have concerns that the new arrangements are going to create new problems associated with communication among the different ministries.
Interview by: Clementine Fullias
Peter Cotgreave is the director of Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE). CaSE was launched in March 2005 evolving out of its predecessor Save British Science, an organisation created in 1986 following a spontaneous protest by active scientists against savage cuts to university research.