This may very well come under the heading of preaching to the converted. I have felt a certain amount of concern as more and more Chemistry departments have been shut down. It is the continuation of many years of neglect of our science base which has seen a continuous brain drain of our brightest and best.
There are many factors involved here. For starters science seems to have a low status (with its corresponding low pay) in this country. We no longer hold the "boffins" in such high esteem. This could be due to a lack of trust between the public and science in general. Unfortunately I don't see the trend reversing if the overall scientific literacy of the country declines.
It doesn't help that we lack the entrepreneurial spirit in this country to really apply science. Experience in the US from places like Bell Labs and the space program shows what science can achieve when given free range. Of course there are all sorts of places our scientists can go but nothing beats building lasers or launching rockets to get the kids interested in the subject. We should fund more blue sky research and see where it leads - not purely be driven by which easy, manageable and predictable project we can research for industry money.
Finally it doesn't help that university is so expensive these days. As more of the University's funding come direct from the students I can see a real pressure for them to cut back on science. After all lecturers cost roughly the same for all disciplines but science has extra costs in expensive labs and equipment. It would sad if our higher education became purely driven by how many bums on seats they could achieve. This is compounded by the effect of student fees which not only generally puts people off but is exaggerated by the comparatively low pay for science graduates. Why do science when you do a Business Studies degree and get on a graduate program for big business?
Anyway, enough of this bitching. What would I do about it? Well I'm glad you asked:
- I would subsidise graduates in designated subjects to the tune of their loan repayments (or a portion of) while they are resident and working in this country. Much like the way certain teachers are payed bonuses in subjects where there is a shortage.
- I would give tax breaks to business for sponsoring blue sky research (that won't necessarily result in a product they can sell). I would also include the tax breaks for companies offering bursaries to promising science students to help them through university.
- I would double the current science funding for research. I would put the emphasis on the new money 50/50 between blue sky research and "big idea" research that will engage the public and scientists of tomorrow.
- I would increase the funding of our space program with at least 3 big UK led satellites/probes over the next 3 years. About the only UK space project I've heard of recently was Beagle 2 which was a piggy back mission on a ESA flight. I'm not saying we should spend as much as NASA or aim to put someone on the moon, but we should at least be bold enough to achieve something that isn't done a shoestring and a whim.
What do you think? Will it work?