Set back by a lamentable lack of science

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
I first discovered the wonders of Einstein and relativity from a television programme I watched when I was 12. I bounced into school next day, eager to discuss my new knowledge with the physics teacher. Through his largely impenetrable Scottish accent, all I understood was that it shouldn't matter to me that when the Sun rose I was seeing something that existed eight minutes ago. Then I was told to get on with kinetic energy.

Many years later, I found my frustration echoed by a Bristol schoolboy, who wrote the winning essay in a New Scientist competition. During a school break, he wrote, kids would discuss with animation a science documentary they had seen the previous evening. Then they would disrupt a physics lesson with equal enthusiasm. This boy had taken three sciences to O-level "and at no time have the workings of the car, radio, TV, vacuum cleaner, tape-recorder or fridge ever been explained to me". Nor had he heard anything about space travel, the food crisis or the population explosion.

Judging by the syllabuses, school physics has improved since then, with electricity in the home and life on other planets among the topics. But Robert Matthews, an Aston university physicist, writing in the London Evening Standard, still sees physics presented in schools "as a soulless collection of facts, with clumsy attempts at 'relevancy' and no hint of its truly cosmic reach".

I am unsurprised, therefore, to read that numbers of pupils taking A-level physics have fallen 38 per cent since 1990. I can think of no greater indictment of our education system than its failure to translate children's fascination with science, evident through the success of science fiction films and TV documentaries, into enthusiasm for studying it. Somehow, schools make science boring.

My concern is not so much with the apparent shortage of people who want to make careers as physicists. In the era of globalisation, that can be made good by importing the expertise we need, with Indian physicists doing for our science labs what Polish plumbers are doing for our central heating.

More important is the poor grasp of science among the wider population, particularly among decision-makers and those who advise or influence them.

For example, newspaper commentators tend to have backgrounds in history, economics, law or literature, but rarely in science. The Guardian's George Monbiot, who has a biology degree, is an exception. The same applies to cabinet ministers. Margaret Beckett, who has a metallurgy degree, is another exception. As for the advisers, John Birt, the former BBC director general, who performs some vague role at Number 10, is almost alone in having an engineering degree. Everybody mocks the poor man mercilessly.

The result of all this is that many, perhaps most, political issues are approached through a fog of incomprehension. Global warming, nuclear power, bird flu, GM crops, designer babies and the MMR vaccine are among the subjects that require a certain familiarity with scientific concepts and methods if sensible decisions are to be taken. Even the case for the Iraq war came down to essentially technical judgments about the damage that Saddam Hussein's weapons could do. The Prime Minister eventually revealed that he didn't know the difference between a battlefield weapon and one that could harm civilians in large numbers.

A minister does not need to be a nuclear physicist, chemist or geneticist.

He or she needs enough easy familiarity with scientific principles to read up and then ask simple questions of the experts.

I accept that science teaching has come a long way since I was at school.

But I fear an over-prescriptive national curriculum makes it even more difficult to respond to what enthuses children. Once, it was at least theoretically possible for a teacher to devote a lesson to issues raised by new reports on global warming or by a TV programme on relativity. Now, alas, everybody must get through the tick boxes.

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