Face it, we need more scientists

September 18, 1998

When I read the trailer for Simon Jenkins's article ("Face it, the last thing we need is more scientists", THES, September 11), I was tempted to write with a pre-rebuttal, so sure was I of the predictable arguments he would put. But it seemed boring and pointless, given the likely banality of the propositions... However, I underestimated his handwaving arrogance and disregard for the facts.

To take a couple of examples. Jenkins believes the campaign by scientists to win more cash for the sector has been phenomenally successful. Where has he been? The recent extra cash the government has given hardly makes up for generations of neglect. Sir Robert May in his recent article in Science provided the evidence that British science has been chronically underfunded, compared with other successful modern economies, especially the United States, which also happens to have the most innovative manufacturing sector in the world.

Of course, Jenkins thinks manufacturing does not matter. But services and entertainment will not ultimately pay the bills for new cars or discover how to make them more efficiently and cheaply. Only scientific R&D will do that, and again the Americans show up how poorly the law, accountancy and humanities-educated bosses of British industry understand this. The only globally successful British industry, the pharmaceutical industry, does understand it, and who runs it? Science-trained managers.

It is simply not true that the pharmaceutical industry wants fewer "scientists". They are desperate for scientifically-literate managers. But of course they rely on the academic scientific community to push the knowledge boundaries forward so that they can concentrate on using the new knowledge to discover new drugs. Why does Jenkins think PPL has such a close relationship with the Roslin Institute and Edinburgh University?

The same is true of medicine and engineering and technology, which for some, presumably casuistic reason Jenkins would like to split off from science. No science base would mean eastern European-standard doctoring, car design, architecture and IT.

Jenkins must be corrected on what he sees as the failure of the teaching of science at school, which he attributes to it being irrelevant, difficult, tedious and mechanistic. Has he considered just once that, like most of the educational initiatives of the past 15 years, the infusion of more science into the national curriculum was begun without any new resources, either in equipment or training?

Most of the maths and science teachers in British schools have no first degree in what they are teaching. It is probably true that we have produced too many green-welly graduate biologists, who have ended up out of their depth, teaching electronics and valency theory. But that is due to the application of laissez-faire economics, not to scientific manpower planning. Is it any wonder school-kids are turned off by lessons taught in spartan labs by inappropriately-trained teachers?

Reading the new populist science writers has not apparently given Jenkins any real insight into the true nature of science and its worth to society and individuals. Nor will it do much to allow our children to cope with emerging technologies or difficult medical and scientific political conundrums, or to develop new high value-added science-based goods and services. Sufficient targeted investment in good scientific education at all levels will.

Michael J. Rennie Symers professor of physiology, department of anatomy and physiology, University of Dundee

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