Science is the route to take to high office

November 7, 1997

For more than a century, the most direct career path to high office in Britain has been to study classics at Oxbridge. Specifically, the Oxford "Greats" degree (Greek, Latin, ancient history and philosophy) has been a passport to the highest offices in the land. A staggering number of top civil service mandarins, diplomats, lawyers, and politicians have honed their intellects on this. Why? What does the study of the ancient world have to do with today? The answer is that it provides a rigorous training in rational thought that is valuable in almost any field.

It is not Greek grammar itself which helps one to run the country, but the logical intellectual processes that allows one to master it.

This argument is forceful, but it can be extended to all education, including science. Scientists are trained in the same intellectual processes as classicists, and then more. They learn problem-solving, rational thought and argument, assimilation of complex information, numeracy, and the rigorous evaluation of evidence. Perhaps it is now time for an education in science to replace one in the humanities as the fast track to high office. Not only do scientists acquire intellectual skills that could put many classicists to shame, the actual subjects they study have direct and growing relevance to today's society.

Whether the issue is Dolly and the possibility of cloning humans, BSE and the government's response, the educational possibilities of the Internet, medical breakthroughs that need assimilating into the NHS, or the industrial opportunities arising from Britain's world-class science base, it would be nice to know that at least some of the decision-makers had enough scientific knowledge to get it right.

I do not mean to sound offensive to non-scientists, nor have I a particular antipathy towards classics. Scientists are not generally more brilliant than students in the humanities. Rather the contrary some of the most talented students positively shy away from science. So you could argue that if the best minds in the country are doing Oxford Greats, they should be running the show. But just think how effective these great intellects would be if they also had the benefit of scientific training. This is not a chauvinist argument for some kind of brave new world dominated by scientists, but instead a modest proposal for a better balance than now exists. A science degree should be seen as a sensible and desirable background forleaders in all fields.

In this light, it is alarming to read that Tessa Blackstone believes that a reduction in the proportion of students receiving scientific degrees should cause no concern, on the grounds that there are only limited career opportunities for them (THES, October 14). Does she think that scientists should learn to know their place? Are they unfit for anything other than the gloomy recesses of a smelly research lab? But I do not mean to be facetious - these are serious issues. It is this kind of blinkered vision of the role of science in society that is partially responsible for the lack of demand for science degrees. If someone as powerful and influential as the government minister responsible for higher education believes that science has so little to offer society, it is no surprise that ambitious high-fliers go for Greats - who can blame them?

There are also more direct reasons why cutting back on science in universities is exactly the opposite of what is now needed. The science base is the engine room of innovation, so if the government really does want to create a high-skill, high-technology, high-wage economy, it must be nurtured. Unfortunately, at 18, it is impossible to identify future scientific stars. But, as I have argued above, Britain can benefit enormously from the graduates who choose non-scientific careers. Baroness Blackstone argues that it is difficult to justify expansion of scientific higher education as it is more expensive than the humanities. This is a fair point and one that deserves to be thought about. Perhaps degree courses can be made more cost-effective. Certainly, scientists must face up to various taboos. But the solution must not be a mindless cost-cutting exercise that further damages universities already in crisis, nor a simplistic reduction in the number of science graduates.

Spending on science is a blue-chip investment and if ministers do not recognise that, we are in trouble. Encouragingly, several members of the government, including Tony Blair, seem to understand this. Even Baroness Blackstone claims to value science but, as the minister in charge of much of the science base, with friends like her, enemies become pretty irrelevant. It would be a pity if, after all, this government turned out to know the cost of science better than understanding its essential value to the whole of society.

Matthew Freeman is a member of the executive committee of Save British Science and a molecular biologist at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge.

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