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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Science under attack

The fight to save Swansea University's Chemistry Department was put into context today by an article in the Sunday Times that predicts that almost a third of physics departments face closure because of student shortages and funding cuts. The article records that 18 physics departments— more than 30% of the total— have closed since 1997. Twenty-eight chemistry departments have closed in the past nine years. The plan to close Exeter’s chemistry department prompted an outcry from scientists last week while the Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto handed back his honorary degree to the university in protest. By 2010, there could be just six chemistry departments left from the present 40.

This in no-way exonerates Swansea University from the consequences of its decision. Rather it highlights the slippery slope that they, and other colleges, have stepped onto. We are now coming to the stage where we will be having to import our scientists:

David Southwood, director of science at the European Space Agency and a former professor of physics at Imperial College, London, said: “We are seeing the trend in north America, where physicists are being imported. All the young physicists are from Asia and that is likely to happen in Europe. It is a serious threat in the UK that we will not have an adequately trained core of physicists.”

This threat to our science base is directly attributable to Government, who have failed to invest in science teaching and research. New rules have skewed funding towards top-rated institutions. The 16 departments graded 4 rather than 5 or 5* for physics have had their research funding cut by half. The Sunday Times reports that the news that 16 of the Country's 50 physics departments are at risk comes only days after Gordon Brown unveiled his plan to boost the country’s “scientific genius”.

There is also a further threat to these departments and that is variable tuition fees. This Labour policy will introduce a market place into education that will lead to students choosing more popular courses. Those opting for science will tend to choose the top-rated departments leaving the others to wither on the vine. As funding follows the student Universities will be forced to narrow the range of subjects they offer, depriving more disadvantaged local students, who cannot afford to go away to College, of a viable choice. Not only will top-up fees deter poorer students from going to college but they will limit the choice of subjects students can choose to do at their local university. A double whammy on access.

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