University of Reading in the UK to close Physics Department

The Institute of Physics announced its regret at the decision of the University of Reading to close its Physics Department. The Institute of Physics science director, Peter Main said, on learning of the impending closure of the 33-strong department, “University vice-chancellors are operating in an environment that is controlled by the choices of seventeen-year old students. Funding follows student numbers and so the future of Britain’s science base rests on the university choices of sixth-formers. In addition, laboratory-based subjects are not adequately funded. This is a clear example of market failure. The government has to realise that its aspirations for science, set out in the chancellor’s “Next steps” programme following the March budget, will not happen unless they look again at how university departments are funded; the current model disadvantages laboratory-based subjects, especially physics”.

Robert Kirby-Harris, the Institute’s chief executive, commented, “Contrary to many reports, physics is not a declining discipline; undergraduate numbers have increased over the last few years - although not in line with the overall increase in university student numbers. Measures are in place to try to increase further student numbers and there is some evidence that they are starting to work - closing a department now would seem to be short-sighted and sends out the wrong messages”.

“Most importantly, the skills of physicists are crucial to research in disciplines as important as health sciences, environmental research and energy”, he went on, “There are universities without a physics department that have many physicists teaching and doing research. If physics departments close who will train the next generation of these vital researchers?”

This follows the University of Newcastle's closure of Physics a couple of years ago, and a number of high profile decisions to close Chemistry Departments in the UK in recent years. It is not clear what the UK's policy is on university science. In a nutshell, Professor Main is saying that despite the fact that the UK needs scientists, university funding follows the whim of school pupils, and how can that be right?

The Institute of Physics is one of the organisations that is working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England on ways to increase physics uptake. The funding council is said to be exploring with a group of universities in the South East of England, including Reading, how to make physics more sustainable.

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