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Reading physics closure would make a mockery of UK commitment to science

26 October 2006 | last updated: 15 December 2015

The joint general secretary of UCU, Sally Hunt, will today tell academics at Reading University that the planned closure of the university's award-winning physics department makes a mockery of any long-term strategy the UK has for science.

Reading University announced its plans to shut the department last month, despite the fact that the university's internal review decided only in March 2006 to retain the physics department. The council will decide the department's fate on 20 November at its next meeting.

In recent weeks UCU, government ministers, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the higher education funding council for England (Hefce) and the Institute of Physics (IOP) have all made encouraging noises about the future of science and innovation in Britain.

Sally Hunt will today tell an emergency meeting called by UCU that these are the people who should be influencing what happens to science in Britain, not individual vice-chancellors. She will say: 'To listen to what ministers, business and academics have to say about science in this country one would assume that the future is bright and we're all committed to moving forward and meeting the challenges UK science faces in a globalised future.

'We have the government committing vastly improved sums to the subject. New initiatives are in place to encourage school children to study the sciences. New physic-based science courses are starting at four universities next year. Long-term strategies, through things like the Chancellor's 'next steps' programme, are in place. All things that paint a rosy picture for the future.

'However, individual vice-chancellors, like Gordon Marshall at Reading, still have the power to fly in the face of expert opinion and wield the axe. He is not alone. Seventy science departments have been shut in the last seven years. This is despite the fact that the rising demands for chemists, physicists, engineers and lab assistants means that by 2014 we will need to find 2.4 million people with appropriate skills to fill these vacancies.

'To move science forward in this country, meet the global challenges and fill those vacancies we all need to be pushing forward together. UCU is calling for an immediate end to the culling of science departments.

'Gordon Marshall's decision to axe the physics department makes a mockery of the commitments from government and elsewhere to UK science. We must hope that common sense, along with expert advice, prevails in this instance and plans to close the department are the only things that get axed. UCU will fight the proposed closure all the way.'

What others have said recently about UK science

Earlier this week the secretary of state for trade and industry, Alistair Darling, committed over half - £3.5 billion - of the DTI's budget to science and innovation. In a speech the minister said that 'Science is vital for our future.'

A radical £18m package funded by Hefce to tackle the crisis in university science and technology was unveiled on 10 October by Bill Rammell, the higher education minister. The package includes a new physics-based university degree being launched at four universities next year

CBI director general, Richard Lambert said in August that: 'The UK risks being knocked off its perch as a world leader in science, engineering and technology. We cannot afford for this to happen.'

Professor Peter Main, director of science at the Institute of Physics said on 9 October that: 'Reading University is making a precipitous and ill-judged action in proposing to close its physics department. How can we have meaningful long-term strategy when a university vice-chancellor can make a unilateral decision in this way?'

Reading MPs have expressed their dismay at this decision.

In the 2006 Budget statement the government said it was committed to doubling the number of students studying Physics by 2010.

More information on Reading University's physics department

In 2005 the physics department, through a joint bid with Leicester University and the Open University, received £2.4 million from Hefce to create a centre of excellence in teaching and learning.

In March 2006 the Reading University Senate stated in a report that the physics department was of strategic importance and recommended more staff be employed and closer links with environmental physics and meteorology be developed.

The physics department has a very good reputation for research and has secured £1.7 million in engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grants.

Fifty one students have just started their physics undergraduate degrees at the university.

The physics department has centres of excellence in research in nanoscience and materials; research in environmental physics; research in atomic, molecular and laser physics; undergraduate studies in physics; postgraduate studies in physics; development of teaching in physics.

Reading consistently achieves a higher level of student recruitment than the majority of physics departments.

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