Sir Harry Kroto: A lack of investment in science education will be disastrous for the nation and the world

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The Independent Online

Chemistry made massive contributions to society in the 20th century: from penicillin, which has saved the lives of billions of people, ammonia-based fertiliser, which has increased the productivity of arable land tenfold, to mundane objects such as the humble plastic washing-up bowl and T-shirts and non-drip paint. In the 21st century, chemistry is undergoing a renaissance, making it more exciting than ever.

We are pretty good at top-down technology, but to make further progress we need to make things directly out of atoms by a bottom-up molecule-based approach, the way biology works and human beings in particular are constructed. If we can master this exciting challenge, it will lead to materials with exceptional tensile strength and amazingly minute new devices with incredible energy efficiency and inevitably hitherto unimagined new applications. Perhaps most important is the fact that, if handled wisely, the contributions promise to be "green", transforming global economics and making further humanitarian technologies readily available to the developing world too.

At this crucial moment one must ask serious questions about the state of science education - chemistry in particular. The Government must be prepared to pay the real cost of educating scientists and engineers. Nothing exemplifies the present situation better than the case of Swansea, whose vice-chancellor has closed down chemistry, saying: "I don't want any chemistry undergraduates, they're too expensive."

These problems could be solved at a stroke by doubling the unit of resource (it would still be less than that for medicine). Furthermore, instead of using the research assessment exercise as an incentive to strengthen their science bases, many vice-chancellors are all too keen to use the data as an argument to eliminate even relatively strong research departments. Furthermore the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) must stop the diversion, by vice-chancellors, of money earmarked for science to fund the teaching of oversubscribed soft subjects with poor career prospects and negative value to the nation.

These measures are "no-brainers" in the light of the fact that scientists and engineers are almost the only groups which provide positive payback on investment. A German study indicates that, to first order, investment in science and engineering education yields a 2 per cent per year payback in tax. For almost all other subjects the return is negative. The personal return is even more lucrative at about 7 per cent.

If one then takes into account the fact that the chemistry-related industries make a £5bn contribution to the balance of payments on a £50bn turnover, the present apparent lack of government concern over the looming disaster is scarcely credible. Even more disturbing is the situation in our schools.

Of teachers teaching pre-16s in a given subject, 70 per cent (30 per cent) physics; 50 per cent (10 per cent) chemistry and 40 per cent (30 per cent) biology respectively do not have a degree (or an A-level) in the subject. In fact 10 per cent of pre-16s are being taught physics by teachers who do not even have a GCSE in physics! Not enough children aged 11-16, the age when charismatic teachers inspire children, are being taught by teachers with adequate subject-specific science qualifications.

However there is some good news - not a lot: our underpaid science teachers have been working hard to stem the tide and after years of decline there has recently been a slight upturn in the number of young people taking science at our universities.

This is good news because these young people are the only ones with any hope of doing anything about the most important issue that confronts the human race: survival. Chemistry, in particular, is the fundamental key to the development of the sustainable technologies we need to survive. Unless the next generation of chemists is able to develop fundamentally new sustainable technologies, things do not look good. The past is the past and we cannot rest on our laurels. Scientists and engineers have done it before and we can do it again.

The reason for some optimism is that chemists are creating magic molecules that "do crazy things". Indeed I wish I was young and starting research again. The newest molecules can juggle electrons and photons in novel ways presaging revolutionary electronic and photonic devices, and soon molecules will seek and destroy defective sites in the body - they will make even the best modern-day brain surgeon appear more like Conan the Barbarian than an archetypal exemplar of state-of-the-art human expertise. The humanitarian impact on the future will be at least as dramatic as in the past.

Here are just a few possible exciting humanitarian chemistry developments:

*New inexpensive techniques to provide pure water to the half of the world that presently has only contaminated water to drink.

*Catalysts that can enable sunlight to split water directly into hydrogen and oxygen and so develop a real hydrogen/oxygen-fuelled economy.

*New, cheap and efficient materials that can convert the colossal amounts of sunlight that fall each day on the Earth's surface, directly into electricity on a scale commensurate with our needs.

*New genetic technologies such as the development of strains of wheat and rice capable of fixing nitrogen by pathways similar to the symbiotic bacterial mechanism that certain root crops have developed. This breakthrough alone would obviate the need for inorganic fertilisers and save 10 to 20 per cent of the world's fossil-fuel supply.

*Crops that counter the land salination and erosion problems we now face.

*Rice that contains vitamin A. Those who oppose GM crops must offer viable alternative strategies.

*New medical and healthcare strategies are desperately needed to combat diseases such as malaria, TB, Aids, cancer and so on.

*The development of effective CO2 sequestering technologies to halt global warming and so enable us to use the vast coal reserves and what oil there is left safely.

*Creation of new molecules that can replace the elements on computer chips and so compact a supercomputer into a box the size of a wrist watch and consume minimal amounts of electricity.

*Synthetic approaches to make nanostructured materials a hundred times stronger than steel and one sixth the weight - enabling cars to do 500 miles per gallon and which are so strong they will not collapse in accidents. These materials will also create aeroplanes so light they can glide safely if engines fail.

*New, fast chemical techniques for sequencing DNA, so transforming the medical application of personal genomic information.

*Work out more of the key steps that occurred in the development of the fundamental chemical processes that underpin life.

*Safe nuclear waste disposal strategies to enable us to utilise nuclear power safely.

By making sustainability the primary driving philosophy behind the next era of scientific innovation, those young adults who are presently disillusioned with the inability of our global capitalist infrastructure to resolve the truly vital issues will turn their enormous creative potential to solving the problems that confront us and create novel technologies which make positive contributions to sustainability. If we do not do this soon, this potential will be channelled into useless or destructive activities and we shall only have ourselves to blame.

Sir Harry Kroto is President of the Royal Society of Chemistry and professor of chemistry at Sussex University. He won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of C60 Buckminsterfullerene, a new form of carbon