Young people may be alienated from science simply because it is hard, Professor Geoffrey Boulton, vice-principal of Edinburgh University, told the conference. The bad press science and technology receives through issues like global warming and genetically modified foods added to the negativity.
Professor Boulton, whose discipline is geology, said: "Science is difficult, it is hard and there is a transition from nature study, about things you can touch, feel and see, to science which is an abstract term.
"In physics, for example, you begin to think bout molecules which you cannot see and touch. There is a long dark tunnel of abstraction before you begin to see how these abstract concepts can help you to understand the world. You emerge from that eventually and because you are so familiar with the abstract tools of science, you can deploy them and relate them to real phenomena."
Schools had to maintain the excitement at a time when children were being asked to persevere in coming to terms with abstraction. "I think it's rather rare children who do take a delight in mathematics," he said.