STEM straw man is a flimsy construct

September 9, 2010

As the many critics of your article "The appliance of extra science is no economic panacea" (26 August) have pointed out, the analysis used by the University of Essex's Paul Whiteley to "refute" the link between science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and economic performance is weak.

The research attempts to correlate the percentage of STEM graduates or enrolments with the rate of economic growth over a short period across a range of countries with vastly different underlying economic structures. Never would the most ardent advocate of STEM disciplines make the claim that current enrolments or graduations instantly deliver economic growth, so disproving this hardly undermines the case for STEM education.

Whiteley believes government policies emphasising the need for STEM education are the result of a lobbying exercise by scientists, an exercise that should be ignored. This misses a fundamental point: the most vocal advocates for STEM skills are business and industry themselves. In a global competition for talent, the most innovative businesses are determined by the quality and diversity of their workforce. As the engine of economic performance, business knows what skills it needs.

This year's CBI survey Ready to Grow: Business Priorities for Education and Skills points out that 72 per cent of UK businesses rely on people with STEM skills. Moreover, it says that all employers in science, high-tech and IT and the majority of those in banking, construction, energy and water, finance and manufacturing are seeking highly talented employees with skills in these subjects.

No wonder then that the emerging economies are turning out STEM graduates in huge numbers. If the UK is going to compete on the world stage in the high-value industries of the future, government policy must support business by ensuring that there are sufficient numbers of people with the right skills.

Mark Downs, chief executive, Society of Biology; Philip Greenish, chief executive, the Royal Academy of Engineering; Imran Khan, director, Campaign for Science and Engineering; Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive, Institute of Physics; Richard Pike, chief executive, Royal Society of Chemistry.

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