Why I ... believe the British should hand their lab coats over to foreigners

October 15, 2004

Science, we are told, is something that every child should and must study. Most hate it, fail to master it and never use it or think about it again after they have left school. It is forced on unwilling and inept pupils because it is supposed to be good for them. Science is the 21st century's version of Latin.

A knowledge of science, we are assured, is essential for a proper understanding of the modern world. It is not. Very few British people, whether adults or teenagers, have any serious knowledge of the sciences, but this does not hinder them when it comes to earning, buying and selling, taking care of their children, playing elaborate games on their computers, tinkering with their car engines or giving up smoking. Implicit local skills and understandings are enough.

Those who have studied national curriculum science are, if anything, more ignorant than their elders. They have a purely nominal knowledge, like that conveyed by a glossy encyclopedia or a human interest science documentary from which all difficult thinking has been carefully excluded. It is lowest common denominator science learnt by rote. For those who can not manage even nat. cur. sci., there is tendentious environmental science and, for the great uncertificated majority, complete incomprehension - national curriculum one, enlightenment nil, sullen resentment considerable.

There are those with a gift for science or a capacity for enduring boredom who will go on to become what the Russians call "specialists", but they will not profit from it. We are always being told that there is a shortage of scientists, yet their price remains low. Perseverance leads to poverty.

Some scientists become rich from their discoveries, but most find that they are less well rewarded than the patent lawyers who corral their inventions or the marketing executives who entice the customers into using them.

Perhaps this is as it should be. The former Soviet Union, which emphasised science education and where scientists were well respected, collapsed from its inability to innovate. Ultimately, it is lawyers and salesmen who create value.

It is hardly surprising that most qualified scientists soon get out of science. Graduates leave to use their generic training in mathematics, statistics or computing in banking, insurance, risk assessment or the futures market; anything to find a task more profitable and less boring than science. Even in the Civil Service, scientists are a lower caste, paid less, gongless, disesteemed by the decision-making mandarins. No wonder David Kelly, the Sudra, was made the scapegoat over the "sexed-up" dossier on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless we need scientists, not just to keep the entire technical system ticking over but to match and incorporate the innovations of our competitors. Where are we to get them now that we feel unable to inflict science on our own unwilling children? Immigration is the answer.

We have always imported foreigners to perform the tasks our own children have rejected. German mercenaries fought for us in the 18th century, Irish navvies built our canals, railways and motorways, Pakistanis did the shift work in the cotton industry in the 1950s and today, illegal immigrants provide cheap labour in catering and cleaning. Anything disagreeable is always done by foreigners, so why not science?

For talented science graduates in poor countries or ones where there is little personal freedom, the tedious work done in a laboratory in free and wealthy Britain is an escape to paradise. All they need are scholarships and visas. They will allow us to transform our university science departments into prestigious research institutes without having to teach any British undergraduates. I look forward to having 100,000 new Hindu and Chinese neighbours.

A full version of this article can be found on the Social Affairs Unit weblog at  http:///www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/

Christie Davies was professor of sociology at Reading University for 18 years. His most recent book is The Strange Death of Moral Britain (Transaction, £28.95)

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