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Strengthening the science base

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A REPORT from the Royal Society last week is worrying. The report, ‘A higher degree of concern’,* looked at the number of students taking postgraduate degrees in the uk and found that, while the number of such students is rising, science is missing out on ‘the postgraduate boom’. Specifically, it found that the proportion of students taking phds in science subjects is falling.

The society used data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency to examine the postgraduate courses taken both by uk students and overseas students who come to the uk to study. Its analysis showed ‘an impressive rate of growth’ in the number of stand-alone masters degrees and doctorates awarded by British universities over the past 10 years, with the number of masters degrees up by 133 per cent between 1994/95 and 2004/05 (to 103,500), and the number of doctorates up by 79 per cent (to 16,000). The corresponding rate of growth among students taking first degrees over the same period was just 29 per cent. The increase among uk students only was ‘more modest but still strong’, with 65 per cent more being awarded masters degrees and 63 per cent more being awarded doctorates (compared with a 23 per cent increase in first degrees). The society comments that more and more uk students are staying on to further their studies, or are returning after a spell away from university, and that ‘the traditional three-year degree is less and less a direct route to employment’.

Given the need for a highly qualified workforce, this much is encouraging, as is the finding in the report that in the masters degree sector, science seems to be holding its own. However, the society is rightly concerned about a fall in the number of students taking phds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (stem) subjects, where the proportion of degrees awarded has fallen from 65 to 57 per cent. As it points out, ‘the future is going to need a more highly scientifically trained workforce’ and, in an increasingly competitive world, ‘it would be rash to argue that even holding market share in comparison with 10 years ago was enough’. It calls on the Government and universities to encourage study in science subjects at all levels, and suggests that a normal eight-year study period should be introduced from the start of a first degree to the completion of a phd, with a national strategy for funding this period of study.

The Royal Society's document does not specifically discuss veterinary research, but it would be interesting to see a similar analysis for veterinary graduates. Concern about the number of veterinarians in research has been expressed for some time. The problems were highlighted by the Selborne report in 1997, which found that ‘too few veterinarians are engaged in research’, and made a number of recommendations aimed at putting that right. Similar concerns were raised by the rcvs Research Subcommittee in an article in this journal last year (VR, September 15, 2007, vol 161, pp 368-370). The seriousness of the situation was recognised by the Government in 2004 when, prompted by the experiences of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, it launched a Veterinary Training and Research Initiative, to strengthen training in clinical research and research on infectious diseases of animals. More recently, the Wellcome Trust launched a further initiative aimed at helping to train the next generation of researchers (VR, September 29, 2007, vol 162, p 436). As the Selborne report recognised, there is a particular need for veterinarians in research, and such initiatives are both necessary and welcome. In addition, there is a need to attract scientists from other disciplines into veterinary research. In the veterinary field, as in others, progress will depend on a strong science base nationally.

The bva's Veterinary Policy Group is currently developing a briefing note on veterinary research and its importance and relevance to both animal and human health, whether in the development of new products and technologies for application in the clinic or the field, work on emerging and re-emerging diseases, or the identification of novel infectious agents, such as the causal agents of tses. Among other things, the document will identify the various sources of funding for veterinary research, and areas where funds are felt to be lacking. Concern remains about the availability of funds for veterinary clinical research, which have long been in short supply, and about a decline in support for animal science generally, particularly at a time when the sights of defra and other funders of research are increasingly fixed on the environment. Meanwhile, as in other fields, there is a need to develop a more attractive and secure career structure for researchers — perhaps even more so in the veterinary field because a clinical undergraduate degree takes longer than other degrees and alternative, potentially more lucrative, career options are available to graduates.

The Government continues to make the right noises about science — emphasising the link between innovation and future prosperity, for example, along with the need to engage the public and encourage more young people to study science at school and university (see, for example, VR, February 2, 2008, vol 162, p 133). To an extent, it has also put its money where its mouth is, increasing investment in university teaching and research after years of neglect. However, it is clear from the Royal Society's report that further effort is needed and that there is still some way to go.

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