Kroto labels Blackstone worse than Tories

October 17, 1997

Tessa Blackstone outlines her vision of a transformed higher education system, Nobel prizewinner Sir Harry Kroto says that she is totally wrong about science.

Science, including engineering and technology, is the dominant culture of the 20th century and it is set to dominate the next century even more. This is due to the voracious appetite of society for televisions, mobile phones, computers and high quality food, all of which are underpinned by the intellectual genius of the scientific community. As this dominance frees the human race more and more from the slavery of mere survival, society, including many of those who govern us, appears to become less and less aware of how reliant we now are on the advances made by the scientific community.

The level of ignorance endemic in the UK is captured perfectly in a 1994 article in The Times by Simon Jenkins, in which he wrote that "The national curriculum puts a quite unrealistic emphasis on science and mathematics which few of us ever need". He captures the attitude of Britain's opinion-forming classes, who are quite prepared to use the fruits of scientific endeavour with no intellectual interest in the genius involved in their invention. Such pontificating advice promoting the increase of such ignorance is as dangerous as it is arrogant.

Hot on the heels of a meeting with John Battle last Saturday initiated by Save British Science, from which some of the scientific community left moderately reassured that there was some real awareness in government of the magnitude of the crisis in scientific education, I learned that Baroness Blackstone has written an article (opposite page)that I find more depressing than any that emanated from the previous government.

I quote: "Subjects such as pure science and mathematics will decline in numerical importance ... Conventional wisdom has it that the lack of people coming forward to study science and mathematics and engineering is a matter for concern. Those concerns are however misplaced ... Advanced economies need top-class scientists and engineers, but only in small numbers ... the proportion of people studying science in universities will go on declining ... Hand-wringing will be out of place". Is this what we have waited to hear for 17 years?

Forget the screw-up of promising not to raise taxes - the country's very survival is at stake. We have to throw money at the problem to solve it as quickly as possible. We shall have to pay our way out of the crisis afflicting all sectors of scientific education. If the tax proceeds are poured into education as is needed, then we will forgive you. Be warned that nothing less than a massive c(r)ash programme aimed at securing our future science education will now do. Future generations will thank you: that is as much as you can ask for.

The BSE fiasco is a warning of the woeful lack of scientific expertise at all levels from the politicians, government scientific advisers, civil servants, journalists, farmers and the public with its insatiable demand for cheap food. Do we need any better example of the need for scientific and technical understanding at every level of society?

When Baroness Blackstone says "hand-wringing will be out of place" she makes her only correct statement. Neck-wringing is now needed. She should be relieved of her duties forthwith - nothing less will reassure those with more than two brain cells to rub together that this government has a real understanding of how serious the problem facing the UK really is. At best the statement reveals a level of complacency in the face of a blatantly obvious crisis beyond imagination, at worst total ignorance of what education should consist of in this age of advanced technology.

If these utterances truly reflect the government's views there is now little hope of averting catastrophe. The academic community has waited so long for the change in government that it had hoped would change the past mindset of complacency. Perhaps it really is now time to leave because this government was the last hope of saving the sinking scientific ship.

Sir Harry Kroto is Royal Society Research Professor at theUniversity of Sussex and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize forchemistry.

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