Physics can spearhead the UK’s recovery, says IOP president

22 November 2013

Physics research has had a great year and physics can lead the economic recovery, but ongoing success depends on a healthy “educational pipeline”, IOP president Frances Saunders told the audience at the Institute’s annual Awards Dinner.

Addressing more than 600 guests at the event in London on 15 November, she said: “The past year has been one to celebrate for UK physics.” A highlight had been the joint award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to Prof. Peter Higgs and Prof. François Englert. Many other UK physicists had played key roles in the discovery of the Higgs boson through their work on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, she said, including some who were present at the dinner.

She also pointed to several independent reports by Deloitte, published by the IOP, that examined the contribution of physics-based businesses to the UK economy. “Deloitte’s analysis confirmed that, although the recent economic downturn affected physics-based sectors as much as the broader economy, the signs are there that physics can lead the recovery,” she said.

But for the success of physics research and application to continue there had to be enough young people choosing to study physics post-16 and at university, she said. Numbers studying physics A-level had increased from a low point of 27,000 in 2006 to almost 36,000 this year, and applications to undergraduate physics courses had increased by 8% in 2013, she said.

A number of universities were introducing or reintroducing physics courses to cope with this demand, and an IOP-commissioned study showed that higher tuition fees had not deterred applications overall, she noted. But the report also showed that women, non-white applicants and those from lower socio-economic groups were more likely to be deterred by fear of debt, she said.

The IOP had been striving to increase the diversity of physics students, and in particular to increase the percentage of girls among physics A-level entrants, she said. The government-funded Stimulating Physics Network, which is delivered by the IOP, had had an impact in this area, with its partner schools showing more than double the improvement in girls’ participation than that seen in the general population, she noted.

This year had also been an exciting one for the Institute, Saunders said. “We have seen continuing growth in membership – in particular international membership, with the opening of new branches in India and Nigeria. We have passed the watershed of 50,000 members, and tonight we will mark that achievement by welcoming our 50,000th member, Eunice Wuraola Ojutalayo of the University of Lagos.”

Also present were representatives of the IOP’s groups and branches, who were “the real core of what the Institute is about”, she said. “It’s your hard work that contributes to our mission of advancing physics, and that raises public awareness of the intellectual excitement and practical value of our subject. I’m glad to have the opportunity to show our appreciation for all you do.”

As well as the award winners and new honorary fellows, guests from other science and engineering societies, and from physical societies around the world, attended the dinner, along with people from industry, academia, government and the research councils. The guests also heard an address from keynote speaker Prof. Sir John O’Reilly, director general of knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

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