Become a scientist, our youngsters were told. Your nation needs you. But students have failed to enlist in subjects they find boring and irrelevant. Simon Jenkins argues that it is time to stop wasting millions on a science policy that just is not working
For the past two decades, the big science lobby, especially within the education service, has been engaged in the modern equivalent of war: the fight for money. The battle is not with the public, or industry or pupils and parents. It is with the only serious paymaster in town, the government. In this, scientists have been like any other lobby, like doctors, librarians, legal-aid lawyers. Everyone wants a bigger share of the cake.
For science, the campaign has been fought by crusaders such as Save British Science, the Royal Institution, the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The target has been Whitehall and its Office of Science and Technology (its name and location wandering round Whitehall like the Flying Dutchman).
It has been a phenomenally successful campaign. Since 1979 the government has regarded producing more scientists as a specific manpower planning objective. There were references to a need for more scientists in the party manifestos in 1983, 1987 and 1992. Science was incorporated in the education department's title. But the greatest triumph was the setting up of a national curriculum in 1988. This event was heavily influenced by the science manpower planning objective. It was a stark departure from the Thatcher government's professed free-market beliefs. If parents, pupils and the jobs market did not yield enough science graduates government intervention was required.
Science subjects were to consume over a third of the teaching time in the earlier stages of English education. To school-teachers who protested, no quarter was given. Universities - where science departments were allowed to proliferate - were encouraged to take more science students. We had science weeks, science parks and "Science For All" T-shirts. The importance we should attach to this national campaign was asserted constantly by politicians. It was indeed like war. We should dig for victory in the labs of the nation.
When I mildly asked the then education secretary Kenneth Baker what evidence he had for this huge work of educational re-engineering, he roared with laughter and waved his arm. "The nation needs more scientists," he incanted. The 1987 manifesto made the only stab that was offered at actually explaining why. It said more science in schools "was a practical and intellectual requirement of the universities". As for why universities needed more scientists there were occasional references to something called a "science base". Anyone who questioned these assumptions was unsound. Science was patriotism, or better it was faith. Scientists' value to society was axiomatic.
So what happened? 1993 was the first year in which a complete cohort of pupils passed through the new secondary curriculum to 16. Over the first five years of the policy, numbers taking science exams at 16 fell by roughly 10 per cent as a proportion of the total of subjects sat. By last year, overall numbers taking GCSE science papers had fallen by roughly 30 per cent. The decline in the traditional three of physics, chemistry and biology has been far greater, from 780,000 to 140,000 entrants in 1993 - this after five years of compulsory emphasis on science lower down the schools.
Nor were the post-16 figures much better. As the new cohorts went on to A level, they did not turn to science. Choice at 16 is a sort of criterion of the new policy. Ten per cent fewer chose physics, while chemistry and biology also fell. Only in the past two years has the decline appeared to level out.
In 1992, the then education secretary, John Patten, realised that this spelt disaster for the universities. He responded to pressure from the science lobby by making it easier to get into university to study science. He widened the difference in support between an arts and a science place from Pounds 850 to Pounds 1,400. As a result, universities that demanded A and B grades for arts courses welcomed Ds and Es for science ones. They offered transition courses for those who did not really want to do science, let alone seek a science career. This, in my view, made a mockery of the manpower planning objective of the subsidy. In 1994, the Association of Independent Science Research Organisations pleaded for a floor of a C grade on admissions to science courses. Universities, with hundreds of science places going begging, ignored the plea.
Despite all this effort and expenditure, applications for degree courses in science actually fell. Between 1994 and 1997, applications for the physical sciences were down 25 per cent and for the biological sciences down 12 per cent. The drive to get more science teachers also flopped. Between 1995 and last year applications to teacher training qualification courses in physics halved, in chemistry they fell by 40 per cent and in biology by 30 per cent. Last week a red alert went out to fill places for the new year.
I can think of no area of social policy, other than education, that would have reacted to this manifest policy failure with so little concern. I have no doubt what the science lobby will say. It will give the Earl Haig, trench warfare defence. It will say we did not throw enough troops at the enemy and must make one more push. Yet this blinkered approach is seriously worrying. Science education at the end of the 1990s appears to hold a worse place in the esteem of students after 20 years of positive discrimination than it did before.
In most other walks of life, such a waste of public money would be subject to inquiry. Judges would be summoned, the allocation of resources audited. Not so in education. Its assumptions remain Churchillian riddles wrapped in enigmas.
I am currently reading Consilience, a book by the American biologist Edward O. Wilson. It is a brash, upbeat account of the role of science in modern culture. Science, says Wilson, offers "the basis of the first truly democratic global culture, one that favours no tribe or religion". Each year it advances our understanding of ourselves and the world about us. The arts, he goes on, can make no such claim, nor can most of the social sciences.
Wilson does not plead for a greater understanding between C. P. Snow's two cultures. He is bolder. He wants science to make a straightforward takeover bid. It is pathetic, he says, how little economists understand of behavioural science, artists of brain chemistry, theologians of cultural genetics. Get out of the way all you arts graduates, he cries, make way for some serious thinkers.
Yet as I read his impassioned plea, I could only wonder if some consilience might not come to the aid of a putative inquiry into the failure of the science-for-all campaign. Why is a rising supply of science graduates crucial to the health of an economy? Why scientists, and not entrepreneurs, administrators, lawyers, designers? What have we learnt about manpower targets in the past? A science base sounds suspiciously like that defunct concept, a manufacturing base.
Most important in this list of unanswered questions is the issue of student preference. Is the market place not working? Do students misjudge their career opportunities, so that government intervention is vital? We are told that the pro-science bias in the curriculum is needed because pupils regard the arts as an easy option. I wonder. This does not explain their preference for courses in engineering and medicine or in computer technology, often tough courses, but popular because students know that jobs in these areas of science are relatively buoyant.
The truth is that in Britain, science jobs are paid less than non-science jobs. The best paid science-based jobs are for doctors and engineers, in both of which the popularity of degree courses has been maintained. To my mind this is evidence of the jobs market working well. I recall a survey of graduate job requirements among leading British pharmaceutical makers. Their demand for science graduates was minimal. What they desperately needed were entrants skilled in design, sales, marketing, law and finance. Universities were not giving them enough of these.
I firmly believe that there is no evidence that more national resources should be devoted to steering young people into science courses as such. Nations with the fastest growth rates may be producing more scientists - though they also tend to produce more artists - but we know of no causal link between the two. One of the poorest performers in science and maths achievement is America, the most successful private sector exploiter of science. The world's most impressive science record over the past quarter century belongs to Russia. The economic dividend has been negligible. Whatever Russia needs just now, it is not more scientists.
Big science has always seemed to want a territorial army of reserves. This has little to do with national manpower needs, more to do with the aggrandisement of academic science departments. There was a ghost of this in that 1987 manifesto reference to "what universities want". University classics departments were once the same. The Catholic monasteries were the same, as are American military academies. In the 1970s and 1980s, at least 30 universities continued to build expensive science research facilities, because science could do no wrong. Only now is this policy being questioned.
When the market-oriented defence begins to wobble, when the wind goes from the sails of manpower forecasts, the science lobby changes tack. It stops saying, "we need more scientists" and says, "well, anyway, science offers a good education in its own right". It is the old C. P. Snow defence. Science is a cultural education: as exciting and wonderful as the humanities.
This has been said for the best part of the past 30 years but, unfortunately for the science lobby, students appear not to agree. Thousands of those introduced to science through the national curriculum have found it not just irrelevant to their future lives but difficult, tedious and mechanistic. For many, science has been like theology to the medieval schoolmen and classics to the Victorians, a ritual to be endured and then forgotten.
For a minority the natural and physical sciences are fascinating. These students are those to whom the 19th-century scientist, Claude Bernard, addressed his famous metaphor. He said that science is a "superb and dazzling hall, but one which may be reached only by passing through a long and ghastly kitchen". It is even possible that we are now down, at 16-plus, to that minority eating in the dazzling hall: a minority of roughly 17 per cent of A-level and degree course choices.
For the majority of pupils, the kitchen is all they are allowed to see. For them science crowds out subjects in which they can delight, that appeal directly to their imagination and creativity. They are told, as I am ad nauseam, that all the things that make life possible are due to science. They shrug and say so what? They can drive a car without knowing about torque, open a laptop without understanding computer science. They can use science without having to understand it, let alone practice it.
In my own case - and I am anything but alone - it was long after leaving the classroom that I came to appreciate science's glory. I did so through those whose writing took me far from the technicalities of the subject to the frontiers of ideas: historians and essayists such as Jacob Bronowski and Peter Medawar, Stephen Hawking and Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins and now Wilson. These writers have used the techniques of the humanities, writing talent, to take me straight into science's glittering hall.
Theirs is what I regard as the new science education. It is not science practice, a vocation that I firmly hold to be for a small minority. It is rather science as Formula One racing, screaming round the track, accident-prone but always going that little bit faster to thrill the audience. It is the science that Wilson wishes to see challenge the humanities on their own territory - the science of astrophysics, ecology, genetic engineering.
The new science is science appreciated, not practised. It is science history, science ethics, science controversy. For 20 years, science has fiercely defended its practical conservatism. It has ignored Edward Wilson's plea to go out and conquer territories new, in psychology, even arts appreciation. But this is the paradox with which I began; science is tortured to prove itself practical to the national economy, then tortured by neglect when that practicality does not appeal to the public.
Science does matter. But as the mathematician's wife said to him one night, "you say I matter to you, but precisely how much?" The science lobby answers, "madly, totally - or at least, as much as last year, plus 10 per cent". Honest science should be sceptical of such hyperbole. It should say, with Nobel prizewinning scientist Peter Medawar, that "the intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is". It should constantly question the assumptions of its own lobbyists.
Simon Jenkins is a columnist with The Times. This article is based on his lecture this week to the BAAS.