Science stuck on the hard shoulder

1st October 2004 at 01:00
In a letter to his friend the natural philosopher, inventor and architect Robert Hooke in 1675, Isaac Newton said: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Of course, part of the real story of science today, as many research fellows and graduate students will mournfully attest, is more like: "If I have not seen as far as others, it is because the giants are standing on my shoulders." Funding is so perilous and space so limited in many British laboratories that we end up simply treading on each other's feet. The progress of our scientific knowledge is threatened and, as a result, teachers will soon notice that more and more of what they teach comes from laboratories and universities abroad.

According to press reports, only two members of the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet have science degrees, while a mere 64 of all the hundreds of other Westminster MPs have qualifications in science, technology, mathematics or medicine. The days have long gone when a prime minister, Lord Salisbury, could maintain a private laboratory for chemistry experiments in his spare time. Queen Anne knighted Isaac Newton in 1705, thereby officially acknowledging the significance of his work. But historians are puzzled by the incredibly rapid acceptance of Newton's ideas.

One recent explanation is that the average middle and upper-class gentleman of the time would have been expected to possess several popular science books and journals. Today's lack of understanding, not just among the public but society's leaders and opinion-formers, means science and medical research are failing to attain the priority and status that they should.

Science teaching, therefore, has an invaluable role to promote the subject's importance.

Many pupils see science as a boring option, as the human dimension is all too often missing. Yet science teaching has an awesome responsibility; if it fails and turns pupils off, the very future of our society is imperilled. We risk failing to recognise and support a future Isaac Newton.

We could become blind to the giants among us.

In The Ascent of Man, published in 1973, Jacob Bronowski declared: "Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always on the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know, although we are fallible."

This is another deep problem in teaching science: how to get over the uncomfortable truth that all attempts to gain scientific knowledge trade in uncertainty. Scientists are therefore loath to make the kind of simplistic and certain statements newspaper editors and television producers demand.

Precision and caution, the bedrocks of science, are anathema to the popular culture in which our children are immersed, and which much prefers the emotive and the sweeping statement.

The chattering classes would never admit at a dinner party that they know nothing of what Shakespeare is on about, yet it remains perfectly acceptable, if not fashionable, to deny any knowledge of what advances Newton introduced.

Teachers need to join campaigns against widespread scientific illiteracy.

They must ensure that what they teach falls on more receptive ears and to ensure they will still have something to teach in the future.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is this year's visiting Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry and will give free public lectures at Barnard's Inn Hall, London EC1 on October 20 and November 29. See www.gresham.ac.uk for more details. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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