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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 15:00 GMT
Become scientists, PM urges young
Science students
Mr Blair will focus on the potential for science to deliver prosperity
Britain must encourage young people who want to "change the world" to become scientists, Prime Minister Tony Blair has said.

He stressed the importance of Britain's knowledge-based economy and said that, to keep it competitive, more scientific pioneering was needed.

Mr Blair said funding for research had increased since Labour came to power.

But the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, accused the government of "stifling" scientific innovation.

In the latest of a series of speeches setting out what he sees as the key challenges facing Britain in the decades ahead, Mr Blair focused on the central role of science in delivering prosperity for the future.

Our future lies in a knowledge economy, that's the way we will win
Tony Blair

He told an audience in Oxford that he had always stood up for and defended scientists and that he would continue to do so.

Mr Blair admitted that he was a poor science pupil at school and had thought the subject was for "boffins" and those "devoid of emotions".

But he said he was now "practically 'born again' on the subject" and said the UK needed to become a "magnet for scientific endeavour".

He called for better links between universities and business and said scientists should be revered as much as sports personalities.

'Crisis'

But Mr Osborne, speaking as he visited high-technology businesses in Cambridge, accused the government of stifling scientific creativity with central control of funding.

"In 1997, just two per cent of the science budget was controlled centrally, with the remainder handled by committees of scientific experts.

"But as a result of Gordon Brown's command and control approach, over 20% of science spending is now controlled from Whitehall. That is stifling innovation and creativity."

He also accused Mr Blair's government of failing on science teaching.

"Two-thirds of those who teach physics to 15-and 16-year-olds do not have a degree in physics, and one third do not even have an A-level in the subject."

Liberal Democrat science spokesman Evan Harris welcomed extra funding.

"But an A-grade on funding has been thrown away by the prime minister by the squeeze on university science departments, causing several to close," Mr Harris added.

"A crisis in science teacher recruitment has led to a dearth of good applicants taking hard science at A-level and at university, reinforcing the shortage of good graduates to teach in schools."

A-level science entries

However figures from the Department for Education and Skills show that, while the number of students taking science A-levels has steadily fallen over the past decade, there has been an increased interest in some sciences in recent years.

Entries for biology A-level in England were up from 43,902 in 2003 to 45,664 in 2005.

Chemistry has also seen a rise in A-level students - 31,065 entries in 2003 compares to 33,164 in 2005.

But the figures show the number of young people sitting A-level physics in England has continued to fall.

Entries for 2005 (24,094) were the lowest for the past 10 years. The peak number of entries was in 1998 at 29,672.

'Catch the bug of science'

Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council said: "If Britain is to maintain its position as a global leader in research, which will be essential for our future success, we need young people to catch the bug of science."

Peter Main, director of science and education at the Institute of Physics said: "Many schoolchildren are choosing subjects such as English or history because they are perceived as being flexible.

"The reality is that there is almost nothing one can do with an English degree that one cannot do with an equivalent qualification in physics, but there are plenty of opportunities available to the physicist that would not be open to an English graduate.

"It is time that children in school were made aware of that."

Science enthusiast Johnny Ball criticised the national curriculum for being too "thin" and he said lessons were "boring gifted children very early".

He said that even children at primary school were being turned off by science.

But he said if youngsters were targeted in the GCSE years (Key Stage 4), when they were beginning to think about career choices post education, it was not too late to encourage them to take up science options.

"If you can kick them in the right direction, you can enthuse the kids towards science even at that late stage," he said.




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