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Why British Science Week should last all year

18 March 2022

By Rachel Youngman, Deputy Chief Executive

Investing in and nurturing the next generation of scientists and technicians will further strengthen the UK's ability to tackle the 21st century’s economic and social challenges, helping us build a prosperous future.

We at the IOP believe that whether it’s levelling up, energy security or the ongoing strength of our economy, science has an incredibly important role to play. But, although our government says it’s committed to ‘levelling up’ our economy, if it doesn’t put physics at the heart of this effort, then we’re neglecting one of our best tools to achieve those aims.

If the UK wants to remain in the ranks of the scientific superpowers, then we need not only to match the research funding ambitions of competitor nations, we also need to equip more young people across our society – with particular focus on those groups underrepresented in this field – with the incredible skills studying physics gives them.

We need to work against the inequities, which still mean many young people simply don’t see physics as a science which is for them. We need to encourage those from underrepresented backgrounds – the girls, the young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, those with disabilities, LGBT+ young people and young Black Caribbeans – to consider a physics-based career.

Government and society need to tear down the barriers which prevent some young people taking up our fascinating science, while also investing to produce a world-class education and technical training system and improving the recruitment and retention of specialist physics teachers.

Maintaining and enhancing our status as a science superpower takes time, investment and, above all, an honest appraisal of where we can do better. Generations of our young people have achieved so much, but often that’s in spite of our help and not because of it.

For example, in 2019, 70% of all physics A-level students came from just 30% of schools. Our young people studying physics don’t represent the sheer diversity we hold dear in our multicultural country. It also limits opportunities to bolster our gross domestic product (GDP) if we neglect the economic advantage our incredible diversity brings to the UK.

The IOP’s Limit Less campaign seeks to change that and is at the forefront of ensuring more children from underrepresented groups receive a quality physics education. Those unfairly limited through no fault of their own have as much right as anyone else to a quality physics education and the path it creates to develop financially beneficial and rewarding physics skills.

The impressive figures of physics’ importance to the UK are stark. Our sector generates £229bn gross value added (GVA), or 11% of total UK GDP. It creates a collective turnover of £643bn, or £1,380bn when indirect and induced turnover are included. With more than 2.7m full-time employees nationwide employed in physics-based industries and labour productivity in the sector at £84,300 per worker, per year, the returns on investment are already impressive and can only improve.

The government’s continued commitment to reach a research intensity of 2.4% of GDP by 2027 is welcome, as is its recognition that R&D has a vital role to play in growth and prosperity for all parts of the UK: one of the most eye-catching commitments announced in the ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper is that by 2030, domestic public investment in research and investment (R&D) outside the greater south-east will increase by at least 40%, and over the Spending Review period by at least one-third.

However, there must be no complacency in ensuring slogans like ‘Levelling Up’ are backed up with substance in R&D and existing, world-leading research continues while other regions benefit from increased investment.

Physics-based businesses will be central to the current goal because they undertake a significant share of business R&D, with R&D in physics-intensive industries equalling £8.9bn (34% of business-conducted R&D). And we expect this figure to grow quite dramatically. Furthermore, an IOP-commissioned survey by CBI Economics showed that 59% of physics innovators plan to increase investment in R&D in the next five years – if the right conditions are in place.

The government’s commitments are an important step in the right direction. So, we mustn’t turn away from these targets if we wish to stay competitive and ensure our future generations have the jobs to match their technical skills.

In conclusion, the conditions the UK needs to make the most of its potential already exist in our young people and thriving physics sector. We know this. But we must make the pathways easier for both the physicists AND businesses of the future to succeed: we need to make sure the investment in our youth and research pays dividends for all of us.

Physics is playing its part in the current and future success of the UK economy. Investing in physics skills for those from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds now will mean more people will benefit from this success.