scienceWhen, in 1988, the Government made it compulsory to study Science to GCSE level, it was assumed this would lead to an increase in the number of Britain’s scientists. And yet, 18 years on, the shortage of scientists in the UK is creating a crisis that could hit the UK’s economic growth, warns the CBI.

Over the last twenty years the number of students studying physics at A-level has fallen by 56 percent. With the economies of China, India and Eastern Europe producing an ever-growing number of well-qualified scientists, the UK is in danger of falling down the value chain, and, to continue to compete, employers will need to look to immigrants to fill the skill gap.

It’s not just physics that’s been hit. The number of students taking A-level chemistry over the last twenty years has fallen 37 percent, and the number of new graduates in physics, engineering or technology has fallen by a third over the last ten years. And yet, demand for chemists, physics, engineers and lab technicians, is on the up, and by 2014 the CBI estimates that the UK will need an extra 2.4 million scientists. CBI director general Richard Lambert said employers “see, at first hand, the young people who leave school and university looking for a job, and compare them to what they need – and increasingly are looking overseas for graduates.” It seems to us the problem lies deep. In part the decision to make science compulsory may have backfired, meaning that science students were typically less enthusiastic. There was a consequential increase in demand for science teachers too, and there’s been a shortage ever since, reducing the quality of education for all. But fundamentally the roots to this crisis lie around us. Where in the mass media is science promoted? While popular science books remain big sellers, there’s a dearth of science based TV and editorial in media aimed at the young. The headlines say the best jobs are in the city, or financial services, or maybe in creative and media sectors.

And in our consumer age, when retail therapy is the most popular form of medication, science, just like manufacturing, has little glamour.

If the UK wants to solve this problem it has to look beyond the schools. Richard Lambert put it this way: “We must smash the stereotypes that surround science and re-brand it as desirable and exciting, a gateway to some fantastic career opportunities#133;But the UK risks being knocked off its perch as a world leader in science, engineering and technology. We cannot afford for this to happen. The Government does have time to tackle these problems before they become critical. However this means it must set itself more challenging targets, not settle for easily achievable ones which do not deliver for the needs of the country quickly enough.”

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