The lack of young people taking up scientific careers is a pan-European rather than UK-specific problem, according to a senior Nokia executive.
Speaking with ZDNet UK shortly after the announcement of a collaboration between Nokia's research team and Cambridge University — with an initial focus on nanotechnology — Dr Tapani Ryhanen said the same story could be told "in Germany or whatever leading EU country".
Last year Intel shut down its own Cambridge labs, which had covered fields from optical systems to wireless networking. Intel's European general manager, Gordon Graylish, subsequently complained that "there's an almost deliberate streaming by the schools out of mathematics and sciences, based on the fact that those are harder subjects" and said the issue should be a major priority for the government.
Even Margaret Hodge, the minister of state for industry and regions, admitted in January that the science curriculum was "boring" and that "encouraging enough people to follow science subjects is an enormous challenge".
However, according to Ryhanen — Nokia's head of global research in the nanotechnology field — the lack of uptake in scientific education is "not only a UK problem", but a more generic European issue.
Ryhanen pointed out that Cambridge has a reputation that "attracts the best researchers from whatever part of the world". He also suggested that the existence of a "whole ecosystem" of companies in the Cambridge area had proven attractive to Nokia in its choice of where to set up its new facility.
Nokia already has two US university collaborations in place: one with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT) (for computer sciences and artificial intelligence); and one in Palo Alto (for internet and related technologies). According to Ryhanen, Nokia wanted to solidify this programme by finding a "strategic collaborator in Europe", particularly one that was already carrying out leading research in nanotechnology.
"The idea of the Cambridge collaboration is that we start from building strong competencies in how we interface technologies to work with the physical world," said Ryhanen on Friday. He said the facility initially would be researching new technologies for energy, computer radios, sensing and "materials we can use for user interfaces", then extending the partnership to work towards the development of "embedded intelligence" in the form of, for example, wearable devices with medical applications. Printed electronics is another field the team is keen to explore further.
The European Commission is currently planning to establish a European Institute of Technology (EIT) to rival MIT in the US. The UK, however, has seen growing opposition to the idea, with Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe — chief executive of the Universities UK action group — telling a House of Lords committee earlier this month that "although politically driven schemes such as the EIT may have a role to play, there are still substantial challenges in making sure that the tax and regulatory systems in Europe are structured to allow the right environment for R&D to thrive".
Meanwhile, in the UK a National Skills Academy network is currently being established with the aim of including the business world in the drive to boost uptake in fields such as IT and telecommunications.