Spotlight on science

October 24, 1997

Spotlight on science: Tessa Blackstone defends her view that the proportion of students studyingscience and engineering should fall. Readers respond. Peter Swinnerton-Dyer suggests a different solution

Only about one third of undergraduates who study science subjects ends up in employment which requires scientific knowledge, and an even smaller proportion of these work in leading-edge research. There is no evidence that increasing recruitment to study science degrees would improve the UK's research performance or its industrial competitiveness. And this is Baroness Blackstone's point: our society needs more people with highly developed intellectual skills, but science education is an expensive way of generating them if we do not need the scientists.

One may even ask questions about the nature of undergraduate science programmes if nearly two-thirds of their graduates find employment in non-scientific fields. Is this why so many school-leavers have turned away from science? Perhaps they also know that many scientific jobs in industry are routine and poorly paid. The BSE debacle has not helped to portray scientists in a good light; though we hardly needed this display on top of the discrediting of expert scientific witnesses, the exposure of years of economy with the truth in the nuclear industry, and the many health service cancer screening scandals.

Perhaps we should stop and ask whether a lot of science education is too narrow in human terms and does not meet today's or tomorrow's requirements for intellectual and personal development in a graduate.

Chris O'Hagan Dean of learning development University of Derby

The contrast between Baroness Blackstone's catholic vision of higher education and Professor Kroto's parochial response demonstrates that one does not need to be a scientist to understand science's place in society and being a scientist does not guarantee such an understanding. It is astonishing to find a Nobel prizewinner pegging the state of science in this country to the sheer number of scientists and their provision of an endless array of consumer goods.

A more feasible and edifying goal for science education is to ensure that the scientific mindset is incorporated into general education regardless of career paths.

It would correct a misunderstanding of the BSE "fiasco" shared by Professor Kroto. The problem is not that the politicians are not listening to the scientists. Rather, the problem is that the available science does not dictate any particular policy solution. Both scientists and politicians need to realise that this is the norm when science enters the public domain. Science never delivers any "magic bullets", but politicians must nevertheless act. All the more reason for everyone to learn how science works: to recognise its limitations.

Steve Fuller Professor of sociology and social policy, University of Durham

Isaac Asimov in his "Foundation" series paints a very bleak picture of a society that has for too long taken science and engineering for granted - it is literally reverting to barbarism with few except the most visionary realising it. The result is disaster for the majority.

Mark Biggs University of Surrey

It is stated that "Subjects such as pure science and mathematics will decline in numerical importance", and "Advanced economies need top-class scientists and engineers but only in small numbers". All indicators, including the chief scientific advisor's recent surveys, show that the pecking order in world science is the US by a mile, the UK second, the rest lagging. Maybe large countries like the US need only small proportions of scientists, but our collective scientific ignorance, especially in biotechnology, means that the key discoveries waiting to be made, and the consequent wealth creation that will come from these areas, will be in proportion to the total effort. If we are to compete, our proportion of top-class scientists must thus be much greater than that in the US. The numbers required are consequently neither small nor declining.

Douglas Kell Institute of biological sciences University of Wales, Aberystwyth

For a government minister to confuse education and training is alarming. In consecutive sentences Tessa Blackstone states "Education in science and engineering is very expensive ..." and "The old Soviet Union trained large numbers of scientists ...". Her argument, that we do not need many professional scientists and engineers and therefore should not provide many university science and engineering courses, hinges on this, perhaps deliberate, sleight of hand.

There is a widespread belief that it is unnecessary to have studied science in order to be able to understand the scientific method and therefore make accurate and informed judgements on the data. This is exemplified in appointments of ministers for science with an arts-based education.

A large fraction of Durham physics graduates do not go on to be professional scientists. The education they receive is intellectually challenging, logically rigorous and includes the opportunity to gather their own experimental data, to analyse it and interpret it. The real world does not exist on the Internet. Laboratory-based education is not cheap but there is no substitute in the virtual reality.

We must be clear in separating the national training needs from the need for citizens in pivotal positions in an advanced technological society to be highly educated scientifically. Most commentators will now accept that the manufacturing base of an economy is vital, but throughout it we still lack the scientific and technological knowledge that gives confidence in our future competitiveness. If we fail to prepare for the future, we prepare to fail in the future.

B. K. Tanner Department of physics University of Durham

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