UK economy cannot thrive without more physics graduates, IOP president tells professors

30 March 2016

The UK is dependent on physics departments producing enough well-qualified graduates and without them the economy of the country is doomed in the long term, IOP president Professor Roy Sambles told physics professors gathered for the Physics Forum on 3 March.

Roy Sambles

The meeting at the IOP’s London offices brought together professors of physics from university departments around the country, with discussion centred on the theme of “Physics for All”.

Sambles said numbers taking undergraduate physics courses had grown, but given the economic importance of physics-based businesses, they needed to grow even more. “Physics-based business in the UK is really very good and you supply the workforce for that,” he said. “But the government is very worried that we are not supplying enough physics and engineering graduates for business in the UK. To survive in five, 10 or 15 years’ time we have to invest more in physics and the other sciences.”

Numbers of undergraduate physics students could be almost doubled if females were represented as equally as males on physics courses he said, noting that Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were doing well in this regard while England lagged behind. He noted that if every academic physicist each year encouraged one extra female to undertake a physics degree, then we would solve the problem.

Female under-representation was something he was “absolutely determined” to do something about, he said. While in maths the proportion of females doing A-level maths had grown steadily over the last 30 years from 30% to about 40%, in physics the percentage had dropped from 26% to about 20%. Up to A-level, only 28% of physics classes were taught by a qualified physicist, he said, and praised the IOP’s initiatives to try to address this. Even so there is still a desperate shortage of physics teachers, he noted.

The message that it pays to have a physics degree in terms of salaries was not getting through, he argued, and the physics community faced the challenge of conveying the excitement to be found in areas of physics that did not necessarily make the headlines. “It doesn’t have to be the Higgs boson or gravitational waves to excite us,” he said.