Tuesday, 28 August 2007

The research period

Ruth Scurr, affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College writes in the THES about the impossible clash between the 14-week research period and the school summer holidays.

'Because I have small children whose school holidays fall inside the designated research period, I find myself pencilling in their play dates, day trips, sleepovers and so on, under the austere heading (of research period). While childless colleagues book themselves into tranquil libraries up and down the country, teasing out the nuances of little-known manuscripts, accumulating the raw material for another research-assessment-exercisable book, I am fraught beside the paddling pool, lucky if I've read the newspaper.'

She also states that although the University of Cambridge offer a playscheme the success of this provision is very much dependent on the child's attitude.

'When it comes to filling our RAE entry forms, the first question should be: Have you reproduced in the past seven years? If answering yes (male or female, since this is as a much a problem for fathers as for mothers) you should turn in a different coloured form where your research output can be measured talking into account the obvious fact that you have not, since the birth of your baby, spent 14 uninterrupted weeks in the library during the designated "research period"'.

Traditional subjects increase in popularity

University heads have welcomed the comeback made by traditional academic subjects displayed in this year's A levels.

Science subjects are ranked 3rd in this year's fastest growing subjects, behind critical thinking and mathematics, showing an increase of 7.96%. Biology and chemistry also feature in the list of the 10 most popular subjects, ranked at 4th and 8th respectively.

Steve Smith, vice-president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Exeter University said that the trend towards traditional subjects put paid to suggestions that students were "turning to 'soft' subjects" and was "good news for universities, the economy - and for the UK generally".

Thursday, 16 August 2007

The cash carrot gathers support

The Guardian is reporting that the Liberal Democrats are also considering whether incentives should be offered to students taking subjects such as maths and physics at university after a recommendation made by the CBI, which wants £1000-a-year "cash carrot" bursaries.

Stephen Williams, the party's schools spokesperson said, "The fall in the number of pupils studying science at school is having a knock on effect in universities, where prestigious science departments are [closing] because of a lack of students".


Results of the class

The Independent is reporting that selective state grammar and independent schools are overwhelmingly responsible for the rise in A-grade passes at A-level. This growing divide in achievement between state and private schools is now at its widest for more than a decade. This comes from Mike Creswell, director general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance.

The education charity, the Sutton Trust has also published a report revealing that the gap in private and state schools in higher in the UK than any other country in the Western world.

The rise in A-level passes has been far more limited in comprehensive schools and, in the country's remaining secondary modern schools, there has been no improvement in a decade. Headteachers are concerned that the introduction of the A* grade, available to those who sit the exam in 2010, will only widen this gulf.

Professor Alan Smithers, the head of the Centre for Education and Employment at the University of Buckingham, said the private schools' rise in performance was largely down to their students' subject choices. "These schools would offer subjects like further maths and physics and foreign languages - subjects where there are a high percentage of A grades. Across the system as a whole you've got this growth in subjects like media studies and the expressive arts - whereas it is more traditional academic subjects which have the highest percentage of A grade passes."


Monday, 6 August 2007

Tomorrow's World returns

After its cancellation in 2003, Tomorrow's World is set to return. Former presenter Judith Hann said: "It's appalling that there is no weekly programme about science because so much is happening in the world at the moment. I now work at the Royal Society alongside emerging scientists and what they all say is, 'one of the reasons why I got inspired was by watching a programme like Tomorrow's World."


Tuesday, 31 July 2007

From the mouth of the minister

In an interview with the Guardian, new science minister Ian Pearson has spoken of his aim to change people's perception of science and improve the way the government communicates messages on science. In contrast to Lord Sainsbury who was considered the scientists science minister, Pearson aims to be more focused on the public perception of science. "There are a lot of people who talk about science. But I don't get the impression that the average person on the street really understands the importance of science to our economic future and to our wellbeing. There is more we can do communicate that. This will help us to pull through more kids to do science and technology subjects at A-level and go on to University."

One of Pearson's first jobs will be to respond to The Sainsbury Review, due to report in September or October, which examines the ability of UK science and innovation to meet the challenges of globalisation, publicly funded R&D and international science and technology collaboration. Pearson rejects a suggestion that he is treading water until the report is published.

Following on from the government admitting last week that meeting its target of increasing spending on R&D to 2.5% of GDP by 2010 is a "challenging goal", Pearson is not worried. "On the 2.5% target - let me try to say it politely - I think that aggregare country-level targets when it comes to R&D are very inconvenient, I think that at an economy level this figure is meaningless. Where I am interested in R&D figures is on a sector-by-sector basis: how the R&D in out pharmaceutical sector compares with R&D in Germany and the US."


Thursday, 26 July 2007

Edinburgh University makes history

Edinburgh University has made history in appointing four women as professors in the School of Engineering and Electronics. Rebecca Barthelmie, Rebecca Cheung, Andrea Scaefer and Roya Sheikholeslami now make up 23% of the school's 18-member professoriate. This is in comparison with a national figure of ~1%. Head of school, Peter Grant, said some 20% of Edinburgh's engineering undergraduates were female, and seeing more women in senior posts should encourage them to consider an academic career. This is in comparison with a national figure of ~1%. The appointments have been praised by Athena, an initiative to encourage women into science.

Source: THES

Science finds a home

A Government Office for Science, headed by David King, will be created within the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). It assumes the functions and resources of the Transdepartmental Science and Technology Group of the Office of Science and Innovation at the former Department of Trade and Industry. Other elements of the Office of Science and Technology will join the DIUS Science and Innovation Group, headed by Sir Keith O'Nions.

Source: THES

Biological science courses see increase in applications

The THES is today reporting that applications for biological science courses (full-time undergraduate) have risen 31.3% compared with 2006. This equates to 2816 more applications. Other subjects which have also seen an increase include complementary medicine, evoking strong opinions from some academics. Professor Colquhoun (University College London) has said he is "appalled" by the development. "These courses are basically anti-science. Universities that run them should be ashamed of themselves, they are cashing in on people's wishful thinking when there is no evidence that complementary medicine works". Celia Bell - from Middlesex University, which runs courses in Western and Chinese medicine - said "There are now millions of people seeking complementary medicine treatments, and we have to ensure that the practitioners are safe and competent and properly trained".

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Amount of animal testing continues to rise despite legislation

Home Office figures have shown that the levels of animal testing in Britain reached a 15-year high of 3.1m last year, despite legislation aimed at minimising the use and suffering of animals in medical research. Professor Balls, Chairman of Frame (Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments) has called for an urgent review of the way animal experiments are licensed saying "As a scientist I'm entitled to believe in modern technology to deal with these problems but I'm disappointed that more effort hasn't been put into bringing the numbers down". Dr Richmond, head of the scientific procedures division at the Home Office said the trend for more animals being used was likely to continue as the number of scientists using genetically modified mice increased.


Friday, 20 July 2007

The end is nigh?

Nobel prize winners, University Vice-Chancellors, Professors and numerous Chief Executives and Presidents of learned societies today wrote to the Guardian to state the case for the supported continuation of the Science and Technology Select Committee. The recent re-structuring of governmental departments has left the committee without an obvious home. The importance of retaining a committee which oversees science in policy-making is stressed.