Patriotic duty to enter science

17th April 2009 at 01:00
Britain will not survive as a scientific nation unless schools enthuse their pupils in the subject, leading scientists argue

When edinburgh's Wolfson Electronics - the firm which came up with the technology which now forms the "guts" of the iPod - was floated on the Stock Exchange, 40 scientists became millionaires.

This is an anecdote Anne Glover, Scotland's chief scientific adviser, loves to tell school pupils in a bid to encourage them to study science.

In spite of her efforts, pupils were not biting, she admitted. Interest in biology was rising, but the number studying chemistry and physics was dropping. This was puzzling, Professor Glover felt, given that we were all born scientists, keen to interrogate the world around us and understand what makes things work. Schools needed to "support that inquisitiveness", she said - but they were failing.

"There is an issue here we need to be concerned about," she told an audience at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. "Science, particularly at school, is not seen as attractive to young people. We need to question why this is."

Professor Glover had some theories - image was crucial in the modern world and scientists tended to be perceived as "mad and crazy". This was why the Scottish Government had launched its Pounds 350,000 marketing campaign which aimed to communicate the message that science was creative and trendy, not geeky.

However, being creative could be problematic for schools, she acknowledged, given the size of science department budgets which she had been "shocked" to discover were "ridiculously low". Some had just Pounds 1,000 a year which was not sustainable, she said.

Meanwhile, Paul Thomson, head of Jordanhill School in Glasgow, who was also speaking at the event, "Science education and future prosperity: are we getting it right?", said that some schools did not have the money to do experimental work.

Professor Glover called on the research councils which fund postgraduate students through their PhDs to finance them for longer so they could each spend a two-week period in schools. As well as developing experiments to enthuse young people, they could be "real role models for kids to look at and aspire to", she suggested.

"Discovering things you did not know before is one of the very exciting things you can do with your life," concluded Professor Glover.

Sir Roland Jackson, who heads the British Science Association, was all for moving away from academic work towards experimentation. Schools had lost sight of the fact that science was about creativity, he said. During his own studies, he had not experienced the creative side of science until his fourth year at university when he had embarked on a mini-research project.

"I'm not sure it's that different now," he told those gathered for the event, which was organised by the International Foundation for Intelligent Living and supported by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. "That project opened my mind to the potential and interest of science, but many others dropped out well before I did."

The "opacity" of science and engineering was problematic, said Heinz Wolff, emeritus professor of bioengineering at Brunel University. We start "too high up", he commented. He recommended begin- ning with more "transparent" science by going back to the mechanical devices created in the Victorian era that could be "analysed by inspection", leading later to the more "opaque" processes such as those which drive the pocket calculator.

Youngsters should be persuaded to enter science, he argued, because it was their patriotic duty. The rapidly developing countries - China, India, Brazil - would soon out-produce and out-consume the UK. Britain could not afford for entire skill sets or facilities to disappear overseas, Professor Wolff said.

Secret of science teaching: don't try to impress the kids, page 15.

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