Hamish McRae: Physics is all very well, but scientists really need to teach themselves confidence too

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The Independent Online

We are worried about science and rightly so.

Last week the president of the Royal Society, the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, warned in his anniversary address that there is a "root problem" in our schools. There are, he said, too few specialist science and maths teachers in state schools, and too many 14 to 16-year-olds who are turned off science and hence close off that option at university. He acknowledged the excellence of the science at the top British universities but noted that the UK spent only 1.1 per cent of GDP on higher education, against 2.6 per cent in the US. American universities have more private funding but even if you just take state funds, the UK spends less than the US: 0.8 per cent of GDP here vis-à-vis 1.2 per cent there.

He also noted the difficulties facing scientists in getting their message across. One particular problem was the public's difficulty in assessing risk.

"We fret about statistically tiny risks - carcinogens in food, train crashes and so forth," he said. "However, we are in denial about some that are far more serious." He acknowledged climate change as one such threat but noted that there were also other more immediate risks such as new infectious diseases.

It will be interesting to see how well British 16-year-olds perform at science compared with their peers in other countries but we will have to wait until next year to do so. The 2006 international pupil assessment study carried out by the OECD, the so-called Pisa study, has focussed on science, but it will take some months for the results to be published. In the first such study, in 2000, UK 16-year-olds did pretty well on science. We will see how things have gone since then.

Meanwhile, we do know that there has been a downward trend in the numbers studying science at A-level (see first graph). Overall numbers doing A-levels have risen since, from 700,000 in 1991 to 800,000 last year. Students doing biology have also risen, but those doing chemistry and physics have fallen, dramatically in the case of physics.

At university level the picture is more complex. This is partly because the overall numbers doing degree courses has risen more sharply but also because the stagnation or decline in the number of students taking first degrees in some traditional sciences has been masked by the popularity of subjects such as sports science, forensic science and psychology.

This issue was highlighted in a report from the Royal Society last month, called A degree of concern?. The report pointed out that the number of students graduating from subjects categorised as the "physical sciences" has dropped from 6.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent of all first degrees between 1994/5 and 2004/5. Within this category, chemistry graduates have dropped from 29 per cent to 21 per cent and forensic and archaeological science graduates have increased from 2 per cent to 8 per cent.

One response to this is to ask whether it matters. Maybe we will need more people doing "sports science" and fewer doing physics. I think the best answer is to point out that areas of the country that are doing well in economic terms seem also to be innovative and the sciences have a big role in innovation.

It is a slightly different measure but if you take research and development spending per head and plot that against GDP per head there is a quite close relationship (right-hand graph). The trend line here excludes London because the capital's economy is different from the rest of the UK.

That does not mean that simply spending more on R&D of itself makes a region more prosperous: to some extent prosperous regions have an economic structure that inevitably generates more R&D: witness the position of the Eastern and South-Eastern regions. Separate data shows that the two cites that have the highest applications for patents relative to population are Cambridge and Oxford but that too is unsurprising given the weight of the two universities in their local economies. But the general principle stands that education is good for the local economy and scientific education is a crucial part of the package.

So what is to be done? Well, I think the first thing to be clear about is that this is not something that is going to be solved by politicians - it is not really a political issue. The decline in students doing physics and chemistry preceded the election of the Labour government in 1997 and has continued since then. This is not a problem that will be solved by throwing more taxpayers' money at it. There is a compelling argument for spending more on higher education, but that money is going to come from a variety of sources of which the state will only be a part.

In any case there is no point in politicians, who in general have an arts or social science background, exhorting young people to choose the subjects they themselves have rejected. Margaret Thatcher, a chemist, was a rare exception. Her experience also supports Martin Rees's point above about the need for good science teachers in state schools: she once said her own fascination for science came from "being taught it extremely well by a remarkable teacher". Lord Sainsbury, who recently resigned as Science minister and who has widely been regarded as a success in that role, was not himself a scientist. His degree, from Cambridge, was in history and psychology and he then did an MBA at Columbia.

If politicians cannot help much, who can? It will have to be the scientists. They have to become more self-confident. One path forward for them is set out in a booklet published next week, from the think-tank Policy Exchange. It is called Science v Superstition: the case for a new scientific enlightenment and is a series of essays attacking the idea that scientific progress entails an element of danger or moral uncertainty. These look at issues such as vivisection, nuclear power, GM crops, stem cell research and so on, showing how our perception of science has changed, and the need to counter unsubstantiated fears.

Of course scientists sometimes do not help their own cause: the BSE scare, which cost several billions to control, has led to between five and 30 deaths a year from new variant CJD and much human misery. But it does not seem conceivable that it will lead to the more than 100,000 deathsonce projected. So what seems to me to be needed is not just more people studying science at university but greater numeracy in the population at large and better understanding of risk - another point made by Lord Rees.

The big issue here surely is that the scientific community has to reestablish trust. People want to trust science; they want science to be trustworthy. After all we will continue to rely on scientific advance to help us live healthier, more fruitful lives. If it is hard to imagine life without antibiotics it is harder still to see solutions to great global problems such as climate change coming from anywhere other than science - all right, science plus economics. So in becoming more self-confident the scientific community may find itself pushing at an open door.

Clogged up Britain needs some hard cash

A warm welcome to the transport review by Sir Rod Eddington, the former head of British Airways, who has been advising the Chancellor on how to fix clogged up Britain - or at least a warmish one.

Warm because Sir Rod focuses on detailed advances: practical things that can be done, such as speeding up planning and fixing pinch points on the road network.

And the "ish"? Because the most radical Eddington proposal, road pricing, requires trust between the rulers and the ruled and this has been undermined by both parties.

Even the use of speed and traffic cameras as revenue-raisers undermines that trust, while the progressive increases in the size and cost of the London congestion charge run counter to previous assurances.

Coping with congestion is not rocket science and the sensible thing is to look at how others cope. Congestion is itself a function of economic success.

The UK problem is mostly one of south-east England, where infrastructure has been neglected and where economic and population growth has been strongest. Too aggressive a set of remedies could create a different set of problems on the fringe. The instinct of planners is to try to restrict the extent to which people and goods move around. But to do that would disadvantage Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England vis-à-vis the south because business there needs to transport its output to its main markets.

Is this another report to be stuffed on to the shelf? We will have a taste next week in the pre-Budget report. Will there be serious money for transport infrastructure, or just some more taxes? Watch the numbers, ignore the rhetoric.