It should be cool to compute

February 17, 1995

From Frankenstein's monster to the computer `nerd', science has had a bad image. But for the sake of the nation it must attractive to young people. Let me put to you a logical proposition. Many of the most innovative minds in the history of science and engineering have been British. Over the centuries British scientists have made an unrivalled contribution to scientific knowledge and understanding. We still have world-class scientists and engineers across a very wide range of disciplines. It therefore follows that the British people honour and applaud their scientists above all others, and that the majority of our young people are driven by a burning ambition to emulate these remarkable achievements.

This provides sad proof that logic does not always come up with the right answers. Science has a tremendous impact on the quality of our lives and the competitiveness of our economy. But our scientists generally operate outside the mainstream of our national culture. No one can set out all the reasons for this; and no one can pinpoint exactly who or what is responsible. So I think we must all bear some responsibility - both for the current state of affairs and for changing it in future.

There is a serious image problem here. There are familiar stereotypes - the mad scientist with his bubbling test-tubes; the evil genius out to destroy the world. Frankenstein and his monster burrow deep into the modern psyche.

Marilyn Butler of Exeter College, Oxford, is spot on when she says: "Frankenstein remains the most damaging sketch of the modern scientist, too clever by half and deeply irresponsible."

Image matters. Children growing up at the end of the 20th century need to be confident and comfortable with information technology, which will make inroads into every aspect of daily life over the next 30 years.

Computer experts used to be wizards. Then they became boffins. Now too many people present them as "nerds". It is a familiar and depressing situation. Which would you rather be when you grow up? A footballer, or a nerd? A film critic, or a nerd?

We need more of our best young people to turn on to science, to understand its excitement and its importance. But these portrayals turn young people off. They undermine the efforts of teachers in classrooms and labs up and down the country. They undermine the truth. The media do not always help, either - not that anyone could accuse The THES of shunning or misrepresenting science. But in general it seems that scientific stories are only saleable if they have a sinister or disturbing angle.

This has very considerable effects. Look at the way people seem instinctively to cower whenever they hear the word "nuclear". Nuclear Magnetic Resonance is an important medical imaging technique invented at Nottingham University in 1973. But hospitals found the technique was very unpopular with their patients. Why? The word "nuclear" had connotations for them. They were frightened; this reflects the power of words and the dangers of ignorance. The technique is now called Magnetic Resonance Imaging. There are no longer complaints or concerns.

That story also clearly demonstrates the responsibility of scientists to explain their work in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, without being patronising or misleading.

That can be quite a challenge. Certainly it is not a new problem. Nor are efforts to promote science anything new. The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1831. Their Annual Festival of Science is a showcase for British science and technology at its best. I was able to attend this year's festival at the Loughborough University of Technology; and it was a great thrill to see the hundreds of schoolchildren discovering that science can be both fascinating and fun.

In the last decade, new initiatives have really taken off. The Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (Copus) was founded in 1985. The Creativity in Science and Technology (Crest) Awards scheme was first piloted a year later, bringing together teachers and people from industry, and presenting pupils with real-life problems that require scientific solutions.

In fact, there is a long list of schemes and initiatives doing excellent work. And there are also a lot of British companies making substantial investments in training and education - companies including BP, Bywater, Zeneca and Ciba.

With so much going on, you may be wondering why the Government is sticking its oar in, but I think we are already showing that there is a lot of value we can add.

There is plenty of exciting and diverse, but often fairly small-scale, activity. We want to give those efforts focus; to give them a boost; and to work with partners in the field to develop a coherent campaign that will result in the critical mass necessary to make a nationwide impact.

Over the past 18 months we have spent more than Pounds 1.5 million on developing new projects and bolstering existing ones such as Crest and the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

But - and this reflects my belief in coherence and critical mass - the centrepiece of our approach is the National Week of Science, Engineering, and Technology. The first National Week was in March 1994. It was the largest public understanding of science ever held in this country. We estimate that up to a million people attended some 1,200 events, in 230 towns and cities across the UK.

It was, to quote a well-known science journal, "a staggering success". We aim to repeat it; to ensure that this will be a regular and major event in the calendar. The 1995 week will run from March 17 to 26; and we are working to make it even bigger and better than last year. Most of the activities in our campaign are targeted at young people. That must be right. Young people are our future. That is why the reforms introduced in the 1988 Education Act were so important, making it a requirement to teach science as a core subject to all children aged between five and 16.

Children who are 16 in the year 2000 will be the first to have had the full 11-year course. But we do not have to wait till 2000 to find some very encouraging results.

This summer the first children to have followed the National Curriculum through their secondary school career took their GCSEs.

Entries for science and maths were substantially up. And the introduction of "double award" science for 14- to 16-year-olds has improved both the take-up and the performance of girls at GCSE level. So there are good signs for the future.

But that is not enough. We have set ourselves a daunting challenge - achieving a fundamental shift in national culture and attitudes.

So it is vital that our higher education institutes should join us wholeheartedly in our campaign. They have first-class people. They carry out first-class research. I know such people are always frantically busy. But I hope they can take time out to explain what they are doing to a wider audience; to communicate the excitement of their research; and to explain its importance.

I hope the institutions where they work will encourage them in this. It would be short-sighted not to. Science and technology are the future. And we all have a responsibility to make sure that young people growing up in Britain today have the skills and the motivation to help define the shape of that future.

David Hunt is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Cabinet Minister responsible for science.

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