Scientist shortage threatens UK research

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food industry Food

Britain is failing to recruit enough world-class scientists because
the country's education system is not up to the job, the UK's
Confederation of British Industry has warned.

The Confederation (CBI) said thousands of potential scientists are being lost because of a stripped-down science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and uninspiring careers advice.

The warning adds to deep concerns in the food industry that the UK is not producing enough food scientists to maintain its world-class reputation on research and development.

The CBI said the UK would likely need an extra 2.4m new chemists, phycisists, engineers and lab technicians by 2014. Yet, the number of graduates in physics, engineering and technology degrees has fallen by a third over the last decade, with A-Level physics and chemistry recruits falling by even more over the last 20 years.

The public warning comes in stark contrast to British prime minister Tony Blair, who has frequently described the UK as a strongly emerging 'knowledge-based' economy.

Industry fears that if shortages continue, however, Britain could see its world-class science base swapped for a role as the world's biggest admin office.

This view is shared by some in the food industry. Professor Christine Williams, head of the University of Reading's prestigious School of Food Biosciences, told this publication that the school's pool of applicants had shrunk from more than 1,000 in 1995 to less than 300 last year.

"I am concerned the UK will lose much of its edge in food development because food companies will take their research elsewhere. In fact, it is already happening,"​ she said.

Her concerns were repeated by the Institute of Food Science and Technology this year, which warned the sector was struggling to fill job vacancies.

A government skills agency, Improve, has been working to address a shortage of skilled workers across the food industry generally. It recently launched a new manufacturing diploma aimed at 14-19 year olds.

On food science, however, the answer from both the CBI and the food industry is the same.

"We must smash the stereotypes that surround science and re-brand it as desirable and exciting; a gateway to some fantastic career opportunities,"​ said CBI director-general Richard Lambert.

Flaws in the education system also need to be addressed sooner, according to industry leaders.

The CBI said it supported government plans to give all school pupils the choice of doing three separate science GCSEs from 2008. Most children currently do a science Double Award, which straddles modules on chemistry, biology and physics.

Teachers, however, are still coming up short in numbers. The government has offered so-called 'golden hello' grants to woo more trainee teachers into maths and science, but the CBI said the vacancy rate in these subjects was still 50 per cent higher than in others.

As a result, the CBI claims a quarter of secondary schools lack a teacher sufficiently trained in physics.

Pupils do now have the choice of doing a GCSE in Food Technology, but Reading's Christine Williams dubbed this merely a re-branding of home economics.

The course includes modules on basic food hygiene and preparation, including HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) assessment, but food industry critics say it does not cover enough ground to be considered preparation for a career in food science.

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