What’s going on with science applications?

Back in October, early Victorian university applications suggested that demand for science was well down, despite the government cutting the cost of science courses. But reports in today’s media say that science applications finished 19% up on last year. With overall applications up only 6%, that endangers my prediction that a price change would have little effect. The history of applications data is that it is rare for a discipline to gain or lose more than 1% of market share in a year.

The complicating factor this year is that several University of Melbourne undergraduate courses that draw on science-related interests and aptitudes – computer science, information systems, dental science and medicine – were offered for the last time in 2008, and we would expect that people aiming for those professions would now enrol in the new science or biomedicine undergraduate courses. And both show significant increases in applicants.

My other prediction of little supply-side response is also complicated by changes at the U of M, but without Melbourne offers are up 4% on last year. That is consistent with normal year-to-year movement.

ENTER scores are stable at Monash and Melbourne, the two big Victorian players in undergraduate science. Monash’s clearly-in ENTER was up 0.2 to 75.2, and Melbourne’s was stable on 85. So added demand is not doing much to push up the ‘price’ in ENTER scores of science courses.

I think my prediction that final science commencing enrolments will fluctuate within the normal range is looking ok. But if we see a similar pattern of increasing demand for science in other states, which do not have the U of M complication, then maybe the cut in price did affect demand.

24 Responses to “What’s going on with science applications?

  • 1
    January 20th, 2009 10:15

    “were offered for the last time in 2008”

    But the new U of M model began in 2008, so these courses were offered for the last time in 2007, no?

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    January 20th, 2009 11:13

    Spiros – No, it is being phased in. They were offered last year so there will still be students in the ‘old’ degrees through to the middle of next decade.

  • 3
    January 20th, 2009 11:16

    Another thing that you might want to consider is that essentially the same courses can be tagged science, arts, or business, depending on potential funding, marketing opportunities, and internal university politics. For example, many places will allow you to a psychology or economics major in either an Arts, Science, or Business degree. Given this, to get a real picture of things, you really need to look through some of the main subject areas individually, as it might otherwise represent a branding change and nothing else.

  • 4
    January 20th, 2009 11:31

    Science might be becoming more fashionable compared to other things. There should be good employment prospects for people trained in the science disciplines relevant to climate change. Whereas the job prospects for budding investment bankers aren’t so great, not just for the next year or two, but in the long term as the 1978 to 2008 era of deregulated finance comes to a screeching halt. A career in banking over the next 30 years may be like a career in banking 1948 to 1978 — not very exciting, and not all that well paid. So the budding rocket scientists will study actual rocket science not financial rocket science.

  • 5
    Andrew Norton
    January 20th, 2009 12:21

    Conrad – Yes, that does complicate things. A course is not a relevant concept for funding purposes, which is based on how units of study are classified. But for statistical purposes, courses are coded to one of the main fields of study even if units within them are from a different field of study.

    Spiros – The broad management and commerce field of study has been trending downwards for some time, and presumably the events of 2008 will deliver another blow. Possibly some students with a quantitative mindset are heading to science and engineering, which has also seen a big increase in applications (though engineering as an occupation is headed for one of its cyclical crashes).

  • 6
    January 20th, 2009 12:33

    But there will always be a need for people who can design bridges and electrical circuits. Whereas there is no need for people who do nothing but push money from point A to point B and back to point A, taking a cut at each step, and endangering the entire world economy in the process.

  • 7
    January 20th, 2009 13:18

    I actually agree with you, a kid is not going to decide his future on a few thousand here or there. Same number of bright kids, perhaps with the economic melt down they don’t see a business degree as a good option.

    It would be interesting to see what went down.

  • 8
    January 20th, 2009 14:50

    What effect has the abolition of Dfee places had?

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    January 20th, 2009 15:55

    Cathy – It looks like it has led to fewer offers, with The Age article saying that overall offers are down though offers for Commonwealth-supported places are up. But it is hard to know how significant the drop is, because most people who applied for full-fee courses also received an offer for a Commonwealth-supported place, many of whom took the latter. I think some people applied for full-fee places as insurance.

    The only previously strongly full-fee course I have examined, Monash Law, has decreased offers by 5% compared to last year. But given the unfavourable funding rates for Commonwealth-supported students, that is quite a small drop.

  • 10
    January 20th, 2009 20:37

    I was under the impression that the unis might be taking more international students this year to make up for the loss of Dfee places. Of course, it remains to be seen whether there will be as many international students interested (or able to afford) coming to Australia.

    I think your analysis of the impact of fees on students’ study choices is still sound, though – I think what we are seeing is a response to the current economic climate, rather than a result of the decrese in fees. I don’t think that freezing the fees for teaching and nursing 5 years ago did anything to make these courses more attractive. If anything, it just gave the unis motivation to try and shed those student places because they weren’t going to get much income from them.

  • 11
    January 20th, 2009 22:30

    Spiros – there is a very recent NBER Working Paperon the wages and human capital in the U.S. financial industry from 1909-2006

  • 12
    January 21st, 2009 06:25

    “I was under the impression that the unis might be taking more international students this year”
    I would doubt this — most universities take as many as they can already within limits, and it seems unlikely demand is going to rise in a recession.

  • 13
    Legal Eagle
    January 22nd, 2009 18:29

    My hubby is a scientist with a PhD. He has taken years to get up to the salary I received as a second year lawyer (without postgraduate qualifications) at a medium sized firm. If Australia wants more scientists in universities, they’d do well to fund scientific research properly.

  • 14
    January 23rd, 2009 13:29

    Legal Eagle, the US funds scientific research properly (better than us in any case) but your husband would be even further behind lawyers’ salaries over there.

  • 15
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 23rd, 2009 14:14

    the US funds scientific research properly

    Damn that George W and his spendthrift ways.

  • 16
    January 23rd, 2009 14:50

    Sinclair, their cancer research just might save your life one day.

  • 17
    Rajat Sood
    January 23rd, 2009 16:18

    Where exactly is the market failure in training scientists to do scientific reseach outside of the fabled area of ‘basic research’ (and question that too)? The fruits of applied research into things like cancer treatments, IT, etc, can typically be made the subject of property rights and hence the benefits appropriated by the party making the investment. So the fact that scientists generally receive low pay is really just a reflection of the relatively low value they produce. For better or worse, far more value is created from the marketing or implementation of an idea than from the creation of the idea.

  • 18
    January 23rd, 2009 17:44

    “The fruits of applied research into things like cancer treatments, IT, etc, can typically be made the subject of property rights”
    One problem is that the rules for property rights are relatively arbitrary and differ from country to country, and there are absolute market failures in some areas — such as most drugs that don’t treat chronic diseases or reasonable amounts of rich people (antibiotics being a good example and no doubt large amounts of cancer drugs too). You can add most behavioural treatments for mental disorders to that (often that have more efficacy than drugs — but it is exceptionally hard to patent procedures and programs), as well most natural products that can’t be owned, some which humans have used for thousands of years (most Chinese medicine). As for basic research, well, if you don’t want things like the ability to predict the climate, tsunamis etc., then don’t do it. Similarly, if it wasn’t for basic research for thousands of years in mathematics, we wouldn’t have computers right now.

  • 19
    Andrew Norton
    January 23rd, 2009 18:30

    “Similarly, if it wasn’t for basic research for thousands of years in mathematics, we wouldn’t have computers right now.

    Though as the publicly-funded research university did not exist before the 19th century, and has only been significant since the post-WW2 period, perhaps not the greatest example.

  • 20
    January 23rd, 2009 20:20

    That’s true Andrew, but I’m not fussed where publicly-funded research gets done — and a fair chunk was done funded by governments/empires of the time. Astronomy/geometry in China, for example, was no doubt developed in large part thanks to public funding. Thanks to this we have a great historical knowledge of sunspots. A Western example on a similar topic is Fourier, he was employed by the military (public), universities (private at the time), and the French Academy of Sciences, the latter of which has historically always been a public organization (I believe). Not only did he give us Fourier transforms, but the greenhouse effect, which is of course rather relevant today.
    This is of course one of the problems of trying to evaluate the economic impact of public research in some areas — its nonlinear — a small number of findings have massive impact, but it’s almost impossible to apriori determine what will beforehand (there are a exceptions, such as the human genome project). If, for example, some finding changes the face of the Earth, how does one evaluate that? Similarly, if you can’t be guaranteed of such findings, since they can’t be apriori predicted, do you simply give up?

  • 21
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 24th, 2009 09:13

    Conrad, Terence Kealey has written on this and he is well-worth reading. Daniel Greenberg is excellent on the story of science and science funding in the US. While I agree with Spiros that the US does fund science very well, that is not waht US science rent-seekers say and Chris Mooney has a book out that alleges a ‘war on science’ but he cannot explain why George W spent so much on science.

  • 22
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 24th, 2009 09:17

    Okay, Terence Keeley link didn’t come through.

    Latest book and earlier classic. There was also a hostile review (by Paul David IIRC) in Research Policy and a reply by Kealey that are worth reading too (circa 1998 or so).

  • 23
    January 24th, 2009 09:27

    Thanks SD, I will certainly have a look when I get some time.

  • 24
    Rajat Sood
    January 24th, 2009 10:27

    Conrad, of course IP law is not perfect, but all advanced economies have it and all have both large and small companies that engage in significant R&D. As for behavioural treatments or any other process- or technique-driven ideas, these may be difficult to patent, but they are also difficult to copy (at least without expert instruction, which can be charged for). They are also often not very costly to develop in the first place, which means that lack of property rights may not significantly deter their development. ‘Basic research’ is a more legitimate target for public spending, but its very nature also makes it is easy to free-ride on other countries’ efforts. It also may occur locally anyway if agents or groups have a sufficient incentive. Incidentally, I don’t consider application to be basic research, so the weather forecasting activities of the BoM, for example, could quite reasonably be considered direct public good provision, not basic research. And even if a case can be made for funding of basic scientific research, that still leaves open the question of funding for university research in arts, commerce and law faculties.