Science must be fit for the future

10th November 2006 at 00:00
Jonathan Osborne Chair of science education at King's College, London

If Tony Blair can claim that the Stern report on the economic effects of global warming is the most important report that has hit his desk while in office, isn't it time for schools to take notice? In particular, isn't it time for school science to exploit the issue - to teach students more science and to engage their interest?

Understanding the phenomenon of global warming is a wonderful example of interdisciplinary science - the kind of science needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Consensus has it that in the economies of the future, individuals will need to be adept at putting elements taken from one body of knowledge with elements from another, then arranging them to offer new insights or to work in new ways to do new things.

In the topic of global warming there is the call to physics to explain why a molecule, which is such a small component of the earth's atmosphere (less than .015 per cent, can have such a dramatic effect on global temperatures.

Then there is the simple chemistry of the carbon cycle which is needed to explain how and why we are producing so much carbon dioxide and how it might be sequestered.

But perhaps most important of all, this is the chance to give photosynthesis a new meaning. For, as Primo Levi argued in his magical description of the element carbon, plants using a quick-witted chemistry "invented" 2 or 3 billion years ago turn carbon dioxide and water into complex sugars. More amazingly, they do it at room temperatures and pressures, something we mere humans are quite incapable of.

Perhaps just as important is the fact that school science badly needs a new vision to sell itself to the youth of today. For all across the developed world, school students increasingly choose to study anything but science.

The reasons for this are complex and cultural, but the growing gulf between science-as-it-is-taught and science-as-it-is practised does not help. As one student commented bitterly: "Why are we studying the blast furnace when we have gone on to cloning now?"

In response, what science - and school science - can offer young people is a new vision of the difference science can make to humanity and a better society. After all, the really great problems that face us - malaria, cancer, HIVAids, environmental degradation and global warming - require the brilliance and creativity of people working in science.

Learning science may be a long slog but it has to hold out something to today's youth that inspires - in this case the chance to make a real difference.

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