Last year ended with a mixed message for science in the US and Europe. Congress finalized the US federal 2005 budget, leaving funding levels basically flat with science agencies receiving modest increases at best and cuts at worst. The National Science Foundation fared badly – its budget cut by $107 million compared with 2004, only the third decrease the agency has sustained in 20 years. While the main victim will be the agency's education programs (with a 10% decrease), the research directorates will have to deal with a 2% cut.

Meanwhile, Europe also seems to be sending out a mixed message for science. The UK appears to be singularly lacking a cohesive direction in science policy. On the one hand, Chancellor Gordon Brown has described his vision of long-term investment in science education and high-tech industry for the UK, including plans for ‘science cities’, starting with Manchester, Newcastle, and York; Science Minister Lord Sainsbury has unveiled the UK's vision for shaping scientific research and high-tech industry in Europe with the next (7th) Framework Programme; and, according to Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt, a new industrial policy for the UK will make it the best place in the world for science. But while the government proclaims its support for scientific research in the UK and Europe, UK universities are closing departments and cutting degree courses in core areas. The latest move comes from the University of Exeter in the southwest of England, which has elected to phase out chemistry. According to a statement, the university believes physics and sports science are preferred areas for future investment. In protest, Sir Harry Kroto, who received the Nobel Prize for the codiscovery of C60, returned his honorary degree in chemistry from the university. Conversely, the University of Newcastle in the northeast of the country is to phase out physics, preferring ‘growth’ areas such as nanotechnology and materials science.

While few advocates of science would wish to argue against any positive government initiatives or interest in the scientific enterprise, one has to wonder where the future scientific workforce is supposed to come from to people the UK's much-vaunted academic research enterprise, fill its science cities, and operate its knowledge-based industries.

To top it all comes the news that members of the international consortium planning to build the $10 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) cannot agree on its location. The two possible sites in France and Japan are hotly contested and, with no agreement is in sight, Europe is threatening to go it alone and build its own fusion reactor with or without the participation of the US, Japan, and South Korea, who all support the Japanese location.

With so much bickering and confusion among the scientific community, it's hardly surprising that fewer and fewer school students look to science for an interesting and fulfilling career! And those few that do may find it increasingly difficult to find a degree course to take, in the UK at least.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00661-3