Is there a shortage of scientists?

Despite the media storm, evidence suggests there may not be a shortage of STEM scientists, so why does the debate continue to bubble?
07 September 2015

Interview with 

Professor Stephen Gorard, Durham University


Many science engagement initiatives are based around the idea that we need scientistsmore scientists. However, the UK is one of the top countries in the world for STEM graduates, beating the US, Germany and Sweden, and there has been a 39% increase in STEM graduates between 2003 and 2010; which begs the question, is there really a shortage of scientists in the UK? Durham's Stephen Gorard examined the evidence with Chris Smith...

Steven - No. We found references going back to the 1920s. Certainly, in the post war era, there was a lot of fuss about rebuilding science skills and so on after the war.

Chris - What's driving that then and what's the motivation behind pushing for more people to go into this discipline? Why is it good for the country?

Steven - There is a lack of numeracy in the British industry and the British workforce, and in the academic workforce. It might help with that. It helps people as citizens and as workers to judge the security findings. So, there are all sorts of skills that it would inculcate. On average, they would be likely to earn slightly more than graduates of some other professions. It's also fun. It's interesting in its own sake. It doesn't have to be for a STEM occupation necessarily afterwards.

Chris - So, it's a reasonable thing to go into. It's certainly not going to harm someone to be going into STEM. So, if there isn't a shortage, it's certainly not going to do any harm to have a few more scientists around. What's the evidence that there might or might not be a shortage?

Steven - The problem is not so much the data as the definitions. What's really happened over the last say, 30 or 40 years is the names of things have changed. So, the number of people doing a degree called physics has remained about the same. It's gone up a little bit but not as much as say, higher education participation has in general. What happens, we've got new things which are STEM related, but don't have words like chemistry, physics, and biology necessarily in their titles.

Chris - What about the issue that if you look at the UK's CS report which looked at the issue of how many people are training in science, technology, engineering, maths type topics, and what happens to them? If you train in medicine and dentistry which were included in those figures, not surprisingly, 90 per cent of people who train in those subjects end up working in those subjects. But then you look at things like life sciences or medical training which is basically learning about biology for example, 75 per cent of the people who study their subjects don't end up working in them. So, I would argue that's a bit of a waste.

Steven - But is it necessarily? These people would take their skills to work in other areas. With say, medicine and dentistry, there are clear vocational routes whereas with degree schemes within STEM which don't have a clear vocational trajectory, someone has to make a decision and there will be opportunities, there'll be serendipity, and all sorts of things that will determine why people end up where they are. That doesn't mean that what they've learned will be harmful or useless to them.

Chris - If we look at those figures and say, well, if people are going and working in sectors that are not relevant to a science training, does that therefore give us an indirect measure that there is an oversupply and we don't need to worry about how many scientists we've got. We've got plenty.

Steven - Well, the paper we published in 2011 suggested at that stage and is now been confirmed by more studies that there isn't a huge unmet demand for people in STEM occupations. There is some evidence that STEM graduates earn more in their STEM occupations than they would in other occupations or the non-STEM graduates would. But I don't think the difference is such that their hands are being bitten off. It's not like the market has got this huge unmet demand for scientists.

Chris - If we do a more fine-grained analysis and we look at these people in STEM subjects, if we sort of home-in on how many people are doing physics or doing chemistry or doing biology, is everything a rosy picture or are there gaps in our market where we perhaps should be focusing more?

Steven - There will be small areas. As with anyone, when you're trying fit a certain supply to a set of demands there will be regional, geographical and sector specific shortages. They might be temporary or they might be chronic. We're talking about the overall picture of supply is, I would've thought reasonably healthy.

Chris - What about the international picture? Britain is doing quite well. There are not many countries that have as many scientists per head of population that we do here. Therefore, are other countries actually in a more powerless position than we are?

Steven - I haven't done a lot of international comparisons, but I would've thought we were in a reasonably good position for a developed country. If that's what we're looking for - but it's very kind of a sort of human capital agenda underlying all of the policy about STEM supply. There's also of course the usual agenda of, "We need a scientific literate population." So, a lot of scientific education shouldn't necessarily be aimed at producing people who end up in STEM occupations. And nor is it a waste if people are given STEM educations and don't end up in these occupations.

Chris - I think as the late (Collin Pilinger) said, "It's much easier to turn a scientist into an artist than to teach an artist to become a scientist. So, I think the point perhaps you're saying and I'll just finish on this point because we are short for time is that, actually, giving people a scientific training regardless of what they do with the rest of their life is a good thing to do.

Steven - I would think it's a good thing to do and it could be something that could be adopted in schools in the key stage 5 where perhaps everyone should continue with some element of STEM some study.


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