Confederation of British Industry warns that Britain is losing its science base

Thousands of potential scientists are being lost as too many young British people choose not to study science in schools and universities, according to Britain’s leading business organisation. 

In a briefing issued on 14 August to anticipate the publication of this year’s A-level results, Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned that the UK risks being ’knocked off its perch as a world leader in science’. Employers are increasingly looking overseas for suitably-skilled workers, and the CBI blames the way science is taught in secondary schools for the shortage of chemistry, physics, maths and engineering graduates.

A lack of science teachers with specialist qualifications is a particular problem, the CBI said. The Royal Society of Chemistry agrees, and insists that A-level chemistry should only be taught by someone with a degree in the chemical sciences, who can bring flair and enthusiasm for their subject to the classroom. The RSC has plans for a programme of continuing professional development for non-specialist chemistry teachers in the forthcoming academic year, RSC’s assistant education manager Kay Stephenson told Chemistry World. ’We have received a letter of support for this programme from GlaxoSmithKline and have applied for funding from the DfES,’ she said.

The science curriculum itself was also criticised by the CBI. It attacked the Double Award Science GCSE system, in which the three core sciences are taught in the time normally given to two. Instead, the CBI believes that all children should be given the option to study three separate science GCSEs. It also recommends that young people receive better advice about scientific careers. ’We must smash the stereotypes that surround science and re-brand it as desirable and exciting; a gateway to some fantastic career opportunities,’ said Lambert.

The new GCSE science curriculum, due to come into effect in September, aims to overcome these problems. Developed in partnership with the RSC, it should ’provide scope to teach the sciences, including chemistry, in more modern and interesting contexts than before’, said Josephine Tunney, national programme manager for the RSC’s "Chemistry for our Future" project.

Tom Westgate