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Cuts to science are creating the perfect storm

(Ed. note - this article is from the UK, but I imagine researchers around the world are facing similar challenges)

Scientists like me work in laboratories and teach students. Our skills and expertise are grounded in the extensive training in the laboratory practical classes we received as students. But what awaits the next generation?

Lord Mandelson's higher education framework places greater priority on science, technology, engineering and maths. Yet at the same time we face swingeing public spending cuts: just before Christmas, Lord Mandelson announced the first wave — a £533 million cut for English universities.

For some time already, the average UK undergraduate science experience has declined. Many practical classes have been replaced by demonstrations, group work, essays and electronic “virtual” classes. In some universities we are heading towards a system of “here's-one-I-made earlier” demonstrations, Blue Peter-style. This is no way to train microbiologists or biochemists.

Teaching science is much dearer than teaching non-science subjects. Yet UK students pay the same fee regardless of course. Government funding provides a differential rate of about £2,700 extra for laboratory-based subjects. This is totally inadequate.

In our best universities, research and other hard-won income helps fill this gap. Access to excellent equipment, long laboratory sessions, specialised skills and innovative experiments have all been maintained through support from research grants. Thus those universities that are strong in research are able to give undergraduates a far better experience than those that are not. It has become politically incorrect to say so but some UK degree courses already offer more than others.

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