The number of US undergraduates gaining physics degrees has risen by 31% since 2000. Even better, more high-school students are taking physics than ever before, according to the American Institute of Physics (AIP). It is surely time to celebrate. After all, it's been hard to escape stories that the number and caliber of physical science students in the US and Europe is declining, or at least not meeting rising industrial and economic needs.

The good news doesn't stop there. Women now make up 47% of high-school physics students, up from 39% in 1987, and the percentages of African American and Hispanic pupils have doubled since 1990. Michael Neuschatz of AIP's Statistical Research Center attributes this to a wider variety of physics classes now available and students' perception that challenging physics classes are appealing to colleges looking for the best applicants.

The situation in the UK is quite a contrast. The closure of the 33-strong physics department at the University of Reading is the latest in a pattern that has seen the number of departments decline by 30% since 1997. Further, numbers of students taking A-levels (the major exam for 18-year-olds) have steadily dropped since the mid-1980s.

However, the situations either side of the Atlantic may not be that different. It depends on how you look at the stats.

UK department closures have more to do with funding not matching the costs of lab-based subjects. Numbers of physics undergraduates have actually been rising, albeit not as fast as in other subjects. In the US, the encouraging rise in graduate numbers is still falling behind the increase in science and engineering jobs, according to the latest figures from the National Science Foundation.

Neuschatz notes the importance of introducing different physics courses. But in the UK, making the curriculum accessible for more students has been seen as ‘dumbing-down’. Then again, in the US, there are also worries about high-school students' performance in all science subjects.

The AIP report also notes that only 33% of US physics teachers have a physics degree. This is another common problem, with the UK already taking some steps to attract good graduates into teaching.

So what lessons can we draw from this muddled picture? Attracting students, tapping into their commitment in areas like energy and climate change, IT, and medicine, would be easier with more specialist teachers and courses that show how the physical sciences can have an impact. It would also be good to have more helpful careers advice about what graduates actually go on to do, from academia to finance. There should be quite an incentive. After all, UK physics graduates earn $360 000 more during their career than those without a degree, that's double the figure for english and history graduates.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70001-9