Face it, we need more scientists

September 18, 1998

Simon Jenkins is right: science does matter. He ranges over many issues in last week's article but he is wrong on several important points.

For a start, government is not "the only paymaster in town": more than half the researchers in the UK work in business enterprise. Second, with the strong advocacy of the Royal Society, students aged 14-16 are encouraged to spend 20 per cent (not 33 per cent, as Jenkins has it) of their curriculum time studying science.

For most, this means double-award courses, which accounted for 900,000 GCSEs last year. But Jenkins's most outlandish claim, based on a superficial analysis of Russia and the United States, is that science has little relevance to a nation's economic performance. The linkage is certainly highly complex, but it is very definitely there.

The Russian experience does not contradict this: it merely shows that the number of scientists trained is not enough. American science has contributed immensely to the US's economic pre-eminence since 1945, which is precisely why there is now so much concern there about the poor showing of American schoolchildren in international league tables of educational attainment. Moreover, despite their economic difficulties, both Korea and Japan are continuing to expand and strengthen their science.

Nearer home, the comprehensive spending review increased the budget for civil science by a higher proportion than any other area of public expenditure. Of course science is only one of the features of an economically and culturally successful nation, but to suggest that the state of science education is of no significance is to ignore the experience of all developed economies.

Sir Aaron Klug President, The Royal Society

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