Is there a STEM crisis in these islands?

Quacquarelli Symonds have published the QS world university subject rankings. One particular aspect of these tables has been noted in both the UK and Ireland: that while universities in these islands do well in the arts and humanities and social sciences, they significantly under-perform in science, engineering and mathematics. This must raise serious questions about the capacity of our countries to remain innovation hubs in the next wave of economic development. It raises questions about resourcing and funding, as well as questions about career planning and guidance in the education sector.

It is an urgent task for policy-makers, funders and for universities themselves to look at how our record for achievement in science, engineering and mathematics can be secured for the future. It is of course also true that excellence in the arts, humanities and social sciences is needed, but the portfolio of excellence must be balanced across the whole range of academic disciplines.

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7 Comments on “Is there a STEM crisis in these islands?”

  1. Iain Biggs Says:

    This seems an odd observation to place on a web site that, some years ago, made an excellent case for moving away from the whole disciplinary mindset on which this post seems to be predicated. Add to that the fact that, rather than the usual obsession with economics, we might more fruitfully be thinking about the probability that within fifty to seventy years we will need to be addressing the problem that some 200 million of the world’s population will be looking for a dry place to live, and this kind of observation starts to confirm the notion that universities are indeed failing society at large.

    • Greg Foley Says:

      Does this kind of thing really matter? Are university STEM departments really hubs of innovation, innovation that has impact on economies? I’m sceptical but willing to be convinced by evidence that demonstrates causation as opposed to correlation!

      • I don’t necessarily think that STEM departments are hubs of innovation – though I’d like to think that some are. However, that’s not the point. The issue is that a country with no reputation for excellence in maths and science and engineering will find it much harder to attract innovation-intensive investment. Much of the investment in Ireland over past decades has been premised on the belief that it is a country with exceptional excellence in STEM subjects. That could be at risk.

    • If that is indeed what the world will need to have resolved in 50 years it will need a whole lot of science expertise. Saying we need to maintain excellence in STEM subjects does not mean that this should emerge from single-discipline departments that do not engage in work outside their specific areas.

  2. no-name Says:

    First of all, note that the QS method is not balanced in its cross-disciplinary measures — citation counts in Scopus (along with opinion polls) matter for STEM subects, but only opinion polls among other academics and employers matter for subjects like English literature, without citation counts objectively measured at all (see — last verified: February 27, 2014). Note further that STEM subjects had vastly higher response rates than most topics in the humanities ( — last verified: February 27, 2014). Thus, a tremendous imbalance exists in both the quantity of opinion obtained and the weighting of that opinion between STEM subjects and other subjects in the overall aggregate score for an institution’s contribution in a subject area. Therefore, QS provides a very flawed mechanism to use in informing discussion of relative strengths in STEM and non-STEM subjects. It is useful, at best, only in within-subject institutional comparisons.

    Given inertia in most systems, including systems of opinion regarding institutions, the likely cause of decline of STEM subjects in the QS poll is in access to Scopus indexing of articles published. Setting aside the fact that Scopus is woefully incomplete both in counting articles published and in counting citations of published articles, the best explanation for Ireland’s decline is to be found in the decline in public funding for research driven in a bottom-up fashion, in favor of funding for thematic areas driven by diktat and with the target of immediate commercial impact rather than publication leading to scientific impact. Diktat-driven research is in fundamental opposition to innovation.

    More than a STEM crisis, there is research crisis. The individuals with most influence over how research is conducted show little evidence of grasping how excellent research emerges.

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