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Science, engineering PhDs to drop by a third

Sadly other things were inside the ring-fence with them

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The number of government-funded science and engineering PhDs will be reduced by a third by 2013 as cuts eat into scientific research.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) stumps up the cash for 10,900 PhD places, but will cut this figure to 7,000, a reduction of 36 per cent, the Head of the EPSRC told Parliament's Science and Technology Committee today.

Professor David Delpy of the EPSRC explained that they were back on the same budget that they had in 2004 when they funded 6,700 students, suggesting that the council wasn't specifically penalising PhD research but just dealing with a reduced budget.

Despite ring-fencing the bulk of the science and technology budget for the next four years, research is one of several areas that will get squeezed as other priorities are protected. Cost overruns at major "big science" facilities such as the Diamond synchrotron (run by the Science and Technology Research Council as opposed to the EPSRC) in recent years have previously been blamed for cutbacks in research places.

Not all science and engineering PhDs in the UK are funded by the EPSRC; many get money from industry partnerships - a number that MPs hope to increase.

In reply to a question from the Science and Technology Committee asking if the squeeze on postgraduate places would trigger a brain drain of talented British students out of the UK, the universities minister David Willetts said that he hoped that key research would stay in the UK, but that the flow of students was two-way and that the UK benefitted from an influx of talented scientists.

Grilled on business and industry reactions to the cuts in PhDs, Willetts brought up the new focus on centres for doctoral training, where researchers spend 75 per cent of their time in industrial settings.

Willetts reiterated his priorities for scientific research over the next few years: "Ageing, global warming, and energy."

"Alongside curiosity-driven research, these big challenges must take centre stage," he said.

He quickly added that he had merely expressed his interest in these areas rather than actively using his powers to push any particular projects forward. ®

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