Professor tries to cure sick country

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Massive investment in education is the "first political priority" to stop the economic decline of Britain, Professor Denis Noble told teachers at the Association for Science Education conference.

In a powerful speech critical of both Government and opinion makers, he called for an end to the science-arts divide in education and to specialisation at A-level.

Denis Noble, professor of cardiovascular physiology at Oxford University and a founder member of Save British Science, had three messages for the Government. First, it should make science an attractive career and pay for it. Second, Britain had failed to link up its two great strengths, finance and science, and, third, learning about science or the arts on their own was not enough.

Professor Noble said an education that did not include maths and science was incomplete and the root of many of Britain's problems.

He added: "It is high time for the Government to act on all the reports that have recommended broadening the sixth-form curriculum. We should do what every other country does, which is to carry a broad range of studies into the final years at school.

"I would then look forward to a 21st century in which Britain's scientific and technological achievements are understood and appreciated by people in all walks of life; to a Britain in which, as in France, Germany or Japan, it is normal, not unusual, for scientists to be on the boards of companies."

He added that: "Investment, massive investment, in education, incorporating opportunities for studying the sciences for all who want it, is absolutely the first political priority for Britain."

As a child Professor Noble went to Emanuel School in south-west London. He told the conference how a contemporary of his, Sir Owen Saunders, was persuaded to take classics by their headmaster. However, under the influence of his mother, he studied chemistry and logic at home and won the school prizes in both subjects despite not attending lessons in either. Saunders left after one term studying classics in the upper sixth.

He is now a Fellow of the Royal Society as is Professor Noble - who resisted the pressure to take classics, the subject then seen as the "real form" of education.

Professor Noble said Observer columnist Richard Ingrams repeated the "same outrage" last year when he claimed science and technology were subjects "far removed from education in any meaningful sense of the term".

But it was William Rees-Mogg who came in for Professor Noble's severest criticism. Writing in The Times last year, Lord Rees-Mogg claimed that Britain was one of the out-performing economies, and he produced statistics to prove the point.

Professor Noble said: "Oh dear me, what Rees-Mogg didn't realise was that the figures he had chosen to present to readers were figures on variance in economic performance in different countries. We did indeed excel at this. We have had one of the most erratic economies, with severe depressions followed by partial recovery at least twice over the past two decades . ..

"For Lord Rees-Mogg to be so ignorant of maths as not to notice immediately the difference between variance and growth is simply appalling. I shudder to think how many more Rees-Moggs there are in the opinion-forming classes of Britain."

The professor, who describes himself as a "polymath" - almost equally at home with French and philosophy as he is with science and maths - said many distinguished scientists had excelled in the arts. Yet, he asked, where were the brilliant humanists who had excelled in science, adding that it was rare for a humanist to become a scientist today.

"I believe that this is at the root of Britain's economic problems," said Professor Noble. "At bottom, it is a cultural disease we are dealing with, and it expresses itself at the highest level in our society.

"It is, I suggest, why so few business and financial leaders in Britain are interested in science and technology to the extent of putting their money there."

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