Over-regulation and a generation of “illiterate and innumerate” under-graduates threaten the future of medical research in Britain, senior clinical academics warned a conference organised by the Council of Heads of Medical Schools.

Professor Mark Pepys, head of medicine at the Hampstead Campus of University College London and a fellow of the Royal Society, bemoaned a generation of young people “tone deaf to science” which would affect both them and society for the rest of their lives.

“Science education in this country is a disaster. Very few pupils in state schools are taught sciences by a teacher with a first degree in science and you cannot have medical research without physics, maths and chemistry. Most kids coming to do medical research are illiterate and innumerate. It is a disaster.”

It's all gone too far

Even in medical schools, he suggested, recent developments had exacerbated the problem: “There is a disproportionate emphasis on teaching medical students to call patients by their first names compared to knowing where the sciatic nerve is. Call me a dinasour but it has gone a little too far.”

He suggested that medical students and junior doctors could no longer access the range and quality of training opportunities he enjoyed.

“They are no longer taught by the best and I am an unashamed elitist – you have to learn from the best to be the best.”

”Regulation and controls” had removed the prospect of a flexible career, as well as placing an impossible burden on most clinicians and academics, Professor Pepys warned. Dr Jane Armitage, reader in clinical epidemiology at Oxford, warned that “increasing regulation may prevent many important public health questions being answered reliably."

Wading through treacle

She claimed that the rise of megatrials and meta-analyses made the 1980s something of a golden era compared to the bureaucracy and regulation which bogged down many research efforts today. “It feels at times like we are wading through treacle,” she told the conference.

“The proliferation of laws and guidelines have made trial results less reliable and trials more complex and more expensive.” Over-interpretation of EU regulations was a major source of such difficulties, she said.