Personally Speaking: Sir Richard Sykes

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The Independent Online
EARLIER THIS week the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) held its annual Youth Science Fair in London. It was a fascinating event, at which 51 talented people from schools the length and breadth of the country came together to demonstrate their scientific projects with the hope of winning one of the prizes on offer. But these students were only a small sample of those who competed in regional science fairs to win a place in this week's fair. Some of the winners will now go on to represent the UK in international science competitions this year.

Walking among the displays, I could not fail to be impressed with the high standard of their work. I was also enormously encouraged by their competence and enthusiasm. All too often the young come in for criticism, but here were young people who deserved our praise. They showed clearly that schools in the UK are capable of turning out the scientists, technologists and engineers that we will need to secure our nation's future.

The Government's White Paper, Our Competitive Future - Building the Knowledge- Driven Economy, published at the end of 1998, drew attention to the important fact that we now had to compete in global marketplaces. Great Britain's old manufacturing base is no longer sufficient to sustain our economic health and improve our quality of life in the face of international competition, much of it from unexpected quarters. We must now play to our strengths and provide the world with high-quality technology-based and added-value products. Our scientific and technological skills are our major strength as we seek to become what the White Paper refers to as a "knowledge-based" society.

The question that must be asked, however, is "How are we to equip ourselves, as a nation, to become reliant upon an economy in which a major currency is our knowledge - and our ability to use it?" Science and technology will increasingly underpin industry and commerce, so a central plank in ensuring our future success is having sufficient numbers of highly-skilled scientists, technologists and engineers.

The challenge for not only schools, colleges and universities but also for industry is, therefore, to ensure that we have young people who are prepared to train to provide the workforce in years to come. Evidently, as the BA's Youth Science Fair demonstrates, there are young people who are enthusiastic about the sciences. The problem is, however, that there are not enough of them. The answer lies in persuading more schoolchildren to take an interest in the sciences and to study them beyond GCSE.

The process of becoming a scientist must begin in schools, where children's innate curiosity should be encouraged. They must be allowed to ask questions and seek answers through hands-on experiment enquiry. They will, of course, need guidance and direction but, if properly managed, the enthusiasm for "finding out" of the early years can be maintained and built on throughout the education process. However, dull and uninspired teaching will soon discourage the young and result in an attitude which sees science as difficult and of little real value. In my own case, I had developed an interest in birds and animals from living in the country. At school, however, science lessons seemed to me to be rather pedestrian and did little to set me alight with enthusiasm. We need to encourage more well-qualified science graduates, with a real love of their subject, to become teachers; and we also need to recognise their value in creating the future. Students will respond to enthusiastic teachers, and science and technology will come alive for them.

My interest in science was not aroused until after I left school to work in a hospital's pathology laboratory where I could see the excitement in biochemistry, bacteriology and haematology. They were no longer dull subjects, as now I could see their direct implications for human health. I soon knew I wanted to be a microbiologist.

This is why I believe it is important that those who employ scientists, technologists and engineers take some responsibility, with the educationalists, for bringing young people to see the place of science in society. By providing work experience for students, companies and others can help the young to understand how relevant and exciting science and technology can be. Such experience can often help them to make better-informed decisions about their future career options.

Outside the formal education system, there are other organisations which provide valuable support for the teaching of science and technology. Many of the professional scientific bodies have activities designed to encourage young people to gain experience of science. The BA itself is a major player in this arena and, through such initiatives as its youth section (BAYS), their First Investigators (five- to eight-year-olds) and Young Investigators (eight- to 13-year-olds) schemes, it works with teachers and also practising scientists and engineers to provide young people with first-hand experience of scientific enquiry.

It is vital for our future success, both economically and for the improvement of quality of life, that we take the supply of good young scientists seriously. We must ensure that more of our schoolchildren and students catch the science bug and seek careers in science-based roles. It is also important that the next generation is sufficiently science-literate to work in increasingly technology-dependent workplaces.

We also need a public that is able to understand the scientific issues that affect their lives and is capable of making decisions with regard to the risks and benefits that lie in future advances. This all begins in the same place - in our schools, colleges and universities. We must, therefore, ensure that they are able and willing to undertake the task of creating our scientific future.

The writer is president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and Chairman of Glaxo Wellcome plc