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Science under the microscope

Countries around the world have been fretting about whether a limited home-grown pool of scientific know-how will become a brake on growth in technology-driven economies. In the US, 38 per cent of science and engineering jobs at doctorate level were filled by foreign-born students in 2000, up from 24 per cent a decade earlier. And in the European Union, 700,000 additional researchers will be required to reach the EU's Lisbon goals in education and training by 2010.

The most recent 2006 Pisa assessments looked not just at how well pupils perform in science, but also at their attitudes and involvement. The good news is that nearly two-thirds of UK 15-year-olds spend at least four hours a week in science lessons, twice the international average and more than any other OECD country bar New Zealand.

Science is also more infused throughout the curriculum. For example, environmental topics are more likely to feature in geography. Perhaps as a result, Britain's 15-year-olds rank fourth highest in their environmental awareness.

But other Pisa evidence suggests that British pupils' interest in science is limited. After answering questions on, say, acid rain, they were less likely than pupils in most other countries to say they would be interested in pursuing these issues.

Even though boys and girls performed very similarly in the test, their attitudes varied considerably. Boys had much greater confidence. When asked about their ability to tackle certain tasks, British and US boys had more self-confidence than any other nationality, even though their performance was only 8th and 23rd respectively among 30 OECD countries.

British girls are near the bottom in estimation that they are "good at science". Despite being behind boys in questions focused on knowledge and explanations, they were ahead on tasks requiring more general scientific understanding.

In addition, girls enjoy science less than boys - more so in the UK than most other countries. The gender gap was also wider than average on desire to go on studying the subject.

If schools could just get girls to feel more positive about science, we would be one step closer to boosting our home-grown pool of future scientists.Photographs: Chris Thomond.

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