Whingeing has become a habit of mind for British science
his has been national Science, Engi- neering and Technology Week. 'Genes are Us' says the station poster. Three thousand `events' have taken place from St Ives to Orkney. There are astronauts in Middles- brough, 'Blood Glorious Blood' in Canter- bury and 'Bugs in Your Bed' in Newcastle. Megalab '95 is hunting flatworms in New Zealand in 'the biggest experiment in histo- ry'. Science Minister David Hunt has shak- en hands with a token robot and sum- moned six Nobel prize-winners to give him advice. The reason? 'An increasing concern about the state of British science,' says the British association for the advancement of that subject. When permitted to choose, fewer students choose science at school and university. Science pay is low. Science gets a bad press. Government support is falling.
British science is becoming like the Church of England and the British film industry. It has been piaing for love and subsidy so long that whingeing has become a habit of mind. Everywhere this week its panjandrums are pictured telling bright- faced children that 'science is vital to your future' or that 'science is fun'. Science is critical to everyday life, to the British econ- omy, to Europe's competitiveness, to global survival, to the whole of human existence. No amount of drivel is considered over the top. The scene reminds me of Ceausescu telling Bucharest School 47 about the revo- lutionary triumph of the Romanian tractor. Science is the new religion, its axioms justi- fied by faith. And the sting is in the tail: government must give science a 'higher pri- ority'. No field of academic endeavour tilts at windmills with such vigour as science (and its Sancho Panza, mathematics). In the early 1980s, the science lobby persuaded the Government to channel huge amounts of money into advanced science education. The slogan was 'Britain needs more scien- tists', a phrase included in the 1987 Tory manifesto. No evidence was offered for the claim. There was no demand for advanced science from students who wished to do arts or social studies. The jobs market wanted (and paid) accountants, administra- tors, economists, lawyers, designers, sales- men. Russia had fallen for the science lobby in the 1960s, and even put a man into space. He left millions of his fellow scien- tists unemployable back on earth. Russia now has more qualified scientists per head than any other nation on earth. It needs them like it needs more vodka. It forgot to teach them economics.
Kenneth Baker and Margaret Thatcher went down the Soviet route. Bonuses were given to science teachers. The state core curriculum was bloated with two-thirds maths, science and technology. Two years ago the first fruits of the policy reached A- level. Almost every science subject saw a decline in popularity. The percentage tak- ing chemistry, maths and physics A-level is the same as it was 30 years ago and the widespread view is that quality is lower. Last week's university entrance returns show that this year's booming courses are in media, marketing, business and leisure. Science departments are having to accept two Es at A-level to fill their government quotas. I cannot think of a case of labour market dirigisme that has failed more spec- tacularly. The reason is not that science is being badly taught — it is well taught these days — but that it is not 'needed', and young people )(now it. I know of no post-mortem on this. Instead, Big Science demands more of the same. This month, the Manchester Centre for Education and Employment Research admitted that the 'need' for scientists might not be evident, but political correctness required it to call for more science teachers in the primary schools 'to fire enthusiasm'. Why? The only demand for more science students is from university science depart- ments, frantic to boost their intake in the great numbers game. I might as well tell primary schools to teach merchant banking, retailing, video-making and hotel manage- ment, skills which Britain does appear to need. We might at least be helping pupils to find jobs. Students can no longer afford to indulge the amour propre of science pro- fessors. They must earn a living. There is a gross oversupply of scientists looking for work. Students know that even science- based companies pay less to scientists than to those who design, market and finance their products. But where is 'Design Educa- tion Week' or 'Media Studies Week', let alone 'Derivatives Trading Week?'
If I was a serious scientist I would regard the Government's science-first campaign in schools and universities as a disaster. It makes me seem lacking in self-confidence, cringing at the feet of ministers begging for cash. The pursuit of quantity at the expense of quality has degraded university depart- ments. It has sucked talented brains into teaching reluctant pupils subjects which, for all their efforts, the pupils do not see as directly relevant to their lives or their work. A hundred pious tracts on 'How your car works' and 'What is a computer?' are dis- tributed to the yawning young. Japanese design and salesmanship (not science) have relieved us of the need to answer these questions. We no longer need to shoe a horse or mow a meadow. The Treasury should have spent its money on high-cali- bre research, rather than blow it trying to buck the market in technology.
For years I have listened to science friends telling me they have cracked the code for making science 'exciting'. I need no persuading. Scientific creativity is pecu- liar and profound. Lord Snow and his 'two cultures' did much damage to public sci- ence by shoving it into a limbo of its own, detached from the mainstream culture of the humanities. It is slowly being dragged back by talented publicists such as Hawk- ing, Wolpert, Feynman and Dawkins. Pop- ular science books sell well to adults, as popular electronics sells well to children. They do so not for their relevance but for their irrelevance, for taking us on a voyage we never knew existed to the farthest reaches of the imagination. They tease us with glimpses of the meaning of life. That is exciting science. But it is hard, very hard, and will only scare the young. Keep it away from them — and perhaps then they will seek it for themselves.
Simon Jenkins writes for the Times.