Thursday, March 16, 2006

Old problems in UK scientific education

The Financial Times today reports on the CBI's observation of further falls in the number of science graduates. The CBI is right to point out anomalies such as psychology being used to boost biology numbers. Psychology is methodologically more subjective than economics and both are different in nature to the natural sciences. Psychology is a fine subject for academic study but is a far more esoteric concern for industry.

The FT fails, in setting the context of the article, to note that this is a fall from a low base in the UK. There have been concerns about the quantity of scientific education in the UK since at least the beginning of this century and these concerns have generally been justified. While there are excellent centres of scientific study (such as Imperial College) there is not the same quantity of scientific education as elsewhere in Europe. This matters because scientific education is particularly important economically. Scientific education doesn't only increase the base of skills for high value sectors but also increases the ease with which firms can identify promising scientists, which is important if they are making a high value investment in them. Also, science departments are valuable as they often maintain links with industry and are at the centre of competitive industries. Early and important examples are the links between Ruttgers University and Merck and between the University of Delaware and Du Pont. These advantages are the reason Michael Porter pointed to high end research institutions as far more important to economic growth than mass university attendance.

Our current system of higher education funding is created with the goal in mind of creating lots of graduates. This goal is determined by class concerns (university implies entrance to the middle class) as much as anything. The economic rationale above suggests we could be better off targeting funding at the hard subjects which provide such solid returns to the nation.

No comments: