It is and it isn't rocket science

December 16, 2005

When kids want to be astronauts but not scientists and can't see the link between the two, we must be doing something wrong, says Kevin Fong

It's official: physicists have joined the endangered academic species list, along with that now rarely sighted animal, the common or garden chemist. Last year, the erosion of these creatures' natural habitat - the university science department - made headlines with the loss of significant breeding grounds in Exeter, Swansea and Newcastle.

Recently, the sharp decline in the number of A-level students taking physics was also highlighted but, by the time this column goes to press, last month's flurry of news items trumpeting the imminent extinction of the physical scientist as a species will have already been forgotten, superseded no doubt by other more pressing items such as who won I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here.

Inevitably, there will soon be another report saying that even fewer people are enrolling for undergraduate science than ever before, in much the same way that every now and again somebody reminds us how many Sumatran rhinos there are left in the wild. Who knows, maybe we can look forward to people running the London Marathon in Isaac Newton costumes under a "Save the British Physicist" banner.

Efforts are being made to address this iceberg on the horizon of UK science. Schemes range from bribing graduates with small sums of money to induce them to train as physics teachers to bribing students with smaller sums to encourage them to study the subject in the first place. But these are desperate times and these are not sufficiently desperate measures.

So why aren't we doing more? Partly because this problem belongs to the future, while at present physics, astronomy and related disciplines are thriving at research-output level, generating more decent science per unit of public investment than the majority of our international competitors. It is easy therefore to create a false sense of security and easier still to do little or nothing. But this is rather like being part of the last dodo enclave, clucking around on the beach, happily admiring the quality of each other's plumage while passively watching the boatloads of men with guns quietly putting to shore.

Physical science has for whatever reason ceased to be attractive not just to schoolchildren and undergraduates but also to the public. The message is clear: we are not making science exciting enough; we are not providing role models for aspirant scientists; we are failing dismally at the public fascination game. This admittedly is probably part of a wider cultural shift but that does not mean we cannot do anything about it, it just means we will need to do some radical thinking. I would suggest that the problem is so bad that any proposed solution that on first inspection doesn't look completely outrageous probably isn't sufficiently outrageous to work.

Here's a simple experiment we can all do. Ask a classroom of schoolkids "Who wants to be an astronaut when they grow up?" and the air is suddenly full of waving limbs; then witness the deforestation brought about by asking how many of them want to be scientists. Children are inspired by the former prospect but fail to see the link with the latter vocation. If we cannot understand this simple phenomenon or appreciate what the future holds should we fail to act, we are probably not as smart as we'd like to think we are.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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