Brussels, Oct 2004
The president of the UK Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford, has called on his government to 'embed the acquisition of an understanding of scientific reasoning in the formal education system up to the age of 19.'
The UK government's former chief scientist made the comments on 26 October in a speech to the companions dining club of the Chartered Management Institute. He said that such a move is needed in order to reverse the dramatic long-term decline in the popularity of A-level science subjects, and to allow all citizens to apply the principles of scientific reasoning when making decisions about the many science-related issues that affect their lives.
'For instance, if they become parents, how should they weigh up the relative risks of having a child vaccinated against the risk of not doing so? Or how does their choice of transport affect energy use and climate change? Or how will the increasing power of computers and communications technology change their daily activities?' asked Lord May.
In his speech, Lord May made reference to a recently published report by the former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, on the reform of education for 14 to 19 year olds. He said that the report had left the Royal Society 'alarmed' because 'there is no apparent acknowledgement at all in the Tomlinson report of the crisis in science education.'
Lord May urged the government, in its response to the report, to reaffirm its commitment to increasing the numbers of students choosing science, engineering and technology subjects in post-16 education.
'But there is a second kind of damage that the decline in the popularity of post-16 science at school will inflict on this country. It will produce a population in which fewer individuals will have the confidence and competence to use the questioning and analytic approach [...] which might for brevity be termed 'scientific reasoning',' he added.
'Quite simply, no young person today can adequately prepare themselves for life in an increasingly technological world, without having a firm grasp of scientific reasoning.'
Lord May stressed that this does not mean making everybody study the traditional science subjects up to the age of 19, but rather finding appropriate and creative ways of developing young people's application of the scientific approach to problems so that they can make better informed decisions.
'The focus must be on gaining an understanding of how scientific knowledge is secured and the confidence we can place in it, rather than just learning long lists of scientific facts as if it were merely a training to appear on a TV quiz show,' he concluded.