Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The wrecking of British science.

Nobel laureate Harry Kroto wrote a brilliant piece in the Guardian today about the dwindling numbers of scientists within the UK.

He states that:

Thirty per cent of physics departments have either been closed or merged in the past five years. What is one to make of the deafening silence of ministers when, last year, the small Sussex chemistry department - a fantastic department to work in, where I stayed for some 37 years and which has housed some 12 fellows of the Royal Society, three Nobel laureates and a Wolf prize winner since it was created in 1962 - was under threat of closure? It was only through the concerted efforts of staff and students that a U-turn occurred.

When the University of Reading announced the closure of its physics department, I remember thinking how shocking it was that this was allowed to happen. In a country where students can study some ridiculous subjects (fashion accessories, packaging, adventure, to name a few), it's somewhat shameful that we can't keep the pure sciences alive.

Kroto goes on to say:

The personal reasons for choosing a science education are also overwhelming. A Royal Society of Chemistry/Institute of Physics study found that graduates with chemistry and physics degrees earn, for the most productive 15-20 years of their working lives, some £15,000 more annually than most other graduates. They earn thousands more than those studying psychology, that seductively popular subject diverting a large proportion of our best young people into dead-end, uncreative careers. It is actually a triple whammy, as the government gets greater investment return in tax from this better-paid workforce, and there are science and technology industries for graduates to enter. The chemical industry posts a £50bn annual turnover with a £5bn profit. Which is more than can be said for law.

The problem is, few science graduates actually stay within the scientific field. Most end up in jobs such as IT, which may give them a chance to use their transferable skills, but inevitably move them further away from a world of science. In my personal experience, most people on my course wanted to be investment bankers - indeed, many of them are now working in finance. Fresh graduates with a steamy loan to pay off are ultimately attracted by money. When the real world hits them, they begin to lose all their desire to change the world and just want to earn money and get on with their lives - even if it means selling their souls.

Finally, Kroto mentions:

The scientific method is based on what I prefer to call the inquiring mindset. It includes all areas of human thoughtful activity that categorically eschew "belief", the enemy of rationality. This mindset is a nebulous mixture of doubt, questioning, observation, experiment and, above all, curiosity, which small children possess in spades. I would argue that it is the most important, intrinsically human quality we possess, and it is responsible for the creation of the modern, enlightened portion of the world that some of us are fortunate to inhabit. Curiously, for the majority of our youth, the educational system magically causes this capacity to disappear by adolescence.

Science education in schools is disgustingly drab. As a tutor, I find myself teaching children who neither understand science, nor want to understand science. It's "hard" or "geeky" or "boring" or "means nothing".

As well as being taught in a decidedly unimaginative fashion, science has also been dumbed down to the point of ignorant within some schools. In its terrible obsession to breed achievers, the government hasn't realised that its A grade pupils know absolutely nothing. At some point along the system, the top students realise this and are probably so disillusioned by the system that they believe university will hold the same unsatisfying answers for them.

I believe science education is in serious need of a revamp. The only problem is, nobody in government is willing to stand up and do something about it, and when they are, it will probably be too late.


Anonymous said...


Sir Harry's piece was great, and it's good that you're praising it, but you're being very selective with the evidence that you use.

You say that "Most end up in jobs such as IT", and follow up by citing a very old piece of data (when the newest iteration of 'What Do Graduates Do' is very much more easily available) for a subject which is not typical of all science outcomes - physics. This distorts the argument.

Many science graduates entering the labour market straight from a degree will not do so in a science job. If you check the outcomes for chemistry, for example, though (http://www.prospects.ac.uk/cms/ShowPage/p!elkbpbj?subject_id=7), you'll see that a job in science IS actually the most common employment outcome on graduation.

But, of course, for a serious career in science, you'll probably need a postgraduate degree, which is why so many science graduates do doctorates. That's a serious commitment in terms of time and finances that many young people are reluctant to choose - although for obvious reasons, they seem happy to do so when it comes to medicine.

As to the question of the subjects you deem 'ridiculous', don't be fooled by the labels on the courses. Some of these courses are deliberately designed and set up with employers for people aspiring to work in emerging industries. 'Adventure' is very specific kind of tourism management degree, for example. 'Packaging' is a graphic design degree with a very practical focus (whether you think we need packaging is another matter), etc.

Nush said...

Hey, thanks for your comment.

I picked the physics data largely because physics is where I have my experience and I probably should have clarified. I guess my particular squabble is with the shutting down of physics departments. :(

Chemistry graduates in this country do indeed have a lot more prospects than physics, as do biology graduates. Pharmaceutical companies seem to be all I find when looking for science jobs in the UK.

I echo your points about requiring a postgraduate degree, and the finance behind it is something that I feel makes more graduates opt against it. The time and effort put in to gaining the extra qualifications rarely pays off as quickly. Very few institutions tend to have funded places (for master's), which is a great shame.

With those subjects that I picked out, my main concern is whether one needs a degree to enter the field, or a traineeship. Learning about packaging design is surely something that can be done on the job? Does it really require a whole degree?

That way, universities can spread their resources towards other subjects that may desperately need the funding.

Charlie B said...

Your point about on-the-job training for packaging is a perfectly good one, but the poor old universities are constantly being slated for producing graduates that aren't skilled for business, and then slated again when they do! Traineeship schemes are a grey area in terms of who is expected to provide them (and how the schemes are accredited), and so university courses have been expected to fill the gap - for better or worse.

Physics is a special case in UK science, and it really is in a bad way in this country. Everything you say in your original piece is very valid when applied to the study of physics, but when we get down to it, the problem is that we don't do enough physics in this country.

I don't like to do too much personal trumpet-blowing, but this gives a brief overview of the problem
(note I don't mention PhD study, for which physics has one of the highest unemployment rates as well).

The Roberts Report from 2002 on the state of science education made the very same comment as you about the over-reliance of UK science on the pharma industry, and bad though things are now, they're nothing compared to how science will look in the UK if the pharma industry falls to bits.

(Here's a link to the Report if you fancy reading a huge independant Government Review. Don't blame you if you don't!)


Keep up the good work.

Nush said...

Oh gosh, thanks for that report Charlie! I shall definitely try and have a read!

I suppose universities can't win, I guess. If it's the employers that provide the funding for these courses, then fair enough, the universities have to give them what they want. But in a way, it's turning education into a private industry.

We're not as physics saavy as our continental neighbours, I do agree with you there, but it seems the only people willing to sponsor physics students are the military. Everyone else seems to want engineers (who are nothing more than applied physicists, really).

S said...

Definitely agree that science education is losing it's quality here - the dumbing down is prevalent at all levels, from school-age upwards.

I'm not sure when/how the problem started though. What I do know is that the most talented scientists aren't given sufficient financial incentive to build on/pass on their knowledge. Future generations miss out on quality/inspiring teaching as the calibre of candidates going for this is significantly lower than that of arts/humanities subjects.

The proportion of secondary school history teachers with a first class degree is something like 83%. The proportion of scientists with firsts is less than 30%. Whilst academic success doesn't equate to teaching efficacy, the difference between being taught/guided by teachers who are passionate, grounded and well-connected within their subject and those who aren't is striking.

Rightly/wrongly, the best-qualified teachers find themselves lured by the private sector, meaning 93% of school children miss out on their expertise.

There's also the problem of subject specialists in the state sector - 83% of secondary school science teachers are biologists by trade; 10% chemists and 7% physicists. The biologists find themselves doubling up in chemistry and psychology. The physicists are so few in number that they don't need to bother doubling up as mathmaticians/IT teachers do it for them.

Consequently, the quality and attractiveness of science education goes down. It'd be nice if the Dept of Education could rectify this - a 5k golden hello is just not enough.