David Perks, 27 September 2006
Teaching science should be an uncontroversial aspect of every child’s schooling. When the government placed it at the core of the National Curriculum it did so because it believed it is a priority for the economy to have a scientifically educated workforce. However, something has gone awry. Pupils are not flocking to study the sciences at A-level and university science departments seem to be under increasing pressure to justify their right to exist. As a country, we seem to be intent on abandoning our leading role in science and technology, despite the protestations of academics, politicians and business leaders.
However, it is not the need for more science graduates that is driving reform within science education. Rather, the emphasis is placed on our fraught relationship with science and technology in society at large. There is now a long list of controversial technologies which seem to cause endless rounds of debate about their suitability, both ethically and in terms of the risks they pose to our health. It seems the implementation of every new advance in technology carries with it a potential to unleash a nightmare scenario on the population. Whether it is the threat from GM crops to our indigenous species of plants and animals or the risk of developmental damage to teenagers who use mobile phones, every technological advance seems to have a price that many think is unacceptable. Advances in medicine that have done so much to improve the human lifespan are now drawn into question as the source of resistant infections. Antibiotic resistance in tuberculosis is seen as a warning that modern medicine has a limited shelf life and may end up being the cause of infections we cannot fight. In short, the appeal of science seems to have worn thin over the last few decades.
Within this context even some of the greatest achievements of science in living memory are being rewritten as lamentable wastes of time and resources. The Moon landings of the 1960s and 70s are now so discredited in the popular imagination that large swathes of young people seriously believe the Americans never landed on the Moon in 1969, but filmed the whole thing in a shed somewhere in the Nevada desert (Bennett & Percy 2001; Hawkins 2004; What Happened on the Moon? 2000). The very thing that inspired a generation to go into science has now become the symbol of the discrediting of the scientific enterprise.
Is it any wonder, then, that things have gone awry in schools and universities? But as if being unpopular was not enough, now we are being told that the science we teach in schools must be made to reflect the mood of pessimism we live in. ‘Science literacy’, advocated by many in education, focuses on creating a ‘critically aware consumer’ of science rather than a future scientist. By acknowledging that most young people don’t go on to study science post-16, let alone become scientists themselves, the advocates of reform think that science education should prioritise the needs of the ‘normal citizen’ or ‘consumer of science’. So instead of concentrating on an academic study of the basics of biology, chemistry and physics, ‘scientific literacy’ focuses on the way people meet science in the media. The issues it addresses are those where we have to make choices based on the use of science in our lives. The idea is that this will make science more relevant and accessible to the majority of young people.
In this understanding of science, the laboratory experiment is displaced by discussion and debate. Uncovering the laws of nature is pushed into the background in favour of discussing the ‘context’ within which scientists work. Instead of looking at Newton’s and Galileo’s discoveries, we are told that we should look at GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca as if this will reveal something more profound about nature. The idea that looking at ‘science in the news’ will give young people a more positive vision of science and technology is a pipedream. Science gets in the news today when it goes wrong or causes a problem – such as when a drugs company is sued by patients or hapless drug trial volunteers. This approach risks sacrificing the intellectual integrity of science to an agenda set by the media.
Lord Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, recently decried schools for failing to engage pupils in anything other than dinosaurs and space. He is right. Young people have a fascination with science and love to ask the big questions science tries to address. What we are singularly failing to do is inspire them to see that science is a vast and open field of human enquiry that those with dedication and drive can not only hope to understand, but also take part in. It is the academic pursuit of science for its own sake that we need to value. It is only through taking science seriously as an academic subject with an integrity of its own that we can hope to master it.
Brunel may have had to leave Britain to gain an education – he was educated in France – but he was steeped in the emerging technologies of his age. Britain was itself a cauldron of technological innovation at the time. Brunel threw himself into every imaginable aspect of this exciting landscape – from the invention of the railways to the use of steam power in shipping. Einstein did much to create the myth of his own genius. In truth he was only capable of achieving the great heights he did because he was educated in the company of other giants. The era of Einstein’s creativity was one of the most creative epochs of physics the world has ever known. He was not alone.
If we are to see a new generation of innovators and scientists emerge in the future we will need to counter the pessimism surrounding our generation’s view of science and technology. By focusing on the consumer of science rather than the future scientist, our current education system is unlikely to help inspire the next generation of innovators. We should look at all our children as if they could be the next Einsteins and Brunels. If we do so there is even a chance we might actually succeed.
David Perks is head of physics, Graveney School
Bennett, M. & D.S. Percy. (2001). Dark Moon: Apollo and the Whistle Blowers. Kempton, Illinois, Adventures Unlimited Press.
Hawkins, C.T. (2004). How America faked the Moon landings. New Port, Minnesota, GTI Publishing.
What Happened on the Moon? (2000). Film by David Percy and Mary Bennett.
"The audience were the stars of the Battle of Ideas - engaged, informed and enthusiastic. As a panellist, I felt both ashamed and educated. Exactly as it should be."
John Street, professor of politics, University of East Anglia