Science is really rockin', but can it ever be cool?

Michael McMahon wonders if the genome project will work a miracle
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The Independent Online

Splitting the atom? Pah! Walking on the Moon? A mere bagatelle! The Industrial Revolution? A "minor blip on the chart of human history". Last week's announcement that scientists have finished the "first draft" of the blueprint of life left commentators falling over themselves to find examples of human achievements that have been dwarfed by it. And, in a comment that reveals an interesting deference of the scientist to the artist, the president of the Forum of European Neuroscience said that the mapping of the human genome would eventually "rank as a cultural achievement on a par with the works of Shakespeare, or the pictures of Rembrandt, or the music of Wagner". Muddled thinking, perhaps, but you can understand his enthusiasm. Mankind really is on the threshold of a new age of self-knowledge, even if that knowledge is of the body and not the mind. Science has never been more exciting, more glamorous.

Splitting the atom? Pah! Walking on the Moon? A mere bagatelle! The Industrial Revolution? A "minor blip on the chart of human history". Last week's announcement that scientists have finished the "first draft" of the blueprint of life left commentators falling over themselves to find examples of human achievements that have been dwarfed by it. And, in a comment that reveals an interesting deference of the scientist to the artist, the president of the Forum of European Neuroscience said that the mapping of the human genome would eventually "rank as a cultural achievement on a par with the works of Shakespeare, or the pictures of Rembrandt, or the music of Wagner". Muddled thinking, perhaps, but you can understand his enthusiasm. Mankind really is on the threshold of a new age of self-knowledge, even if that knowledge is of the body and not the mind. Science has never been more exciting, more glamorous.

Let's hope that this dramatic scientific renaissance will do something to reverse the year-on-year decline of the number of young people opting to study science at school. Maybe the biological gold-rush will finally get our 16-year-olds grabbing their intellectual picks and shovels and heading off to get a piece of the action for themselves, pausing only to pick up some A-levels on the way. Up to the age of 16, the study of science is compulsory: it is part of the national curriculum. But when it comes to choosing A-levels, for some time now, fewer and fewer young people have been choosing to study it. Last year, entries fell even further: in biology by another 4 per cent, chemistry by 3 per cent and physics and maths by another percentage point each.

This doesn't necessarily mean that more of our sixth formers are actually rejecting biology, chemistry, physics and maths, but it is the case that many are positively choosing to do other subjects instead. Two successive governments have relentlessly converted the enterprise of education into education for enterprise, and youngsters are deciding earlier on the subjects that they think will give them the best qualifications for a job. Purely academic subjects are on the wane. Many who might previously have opted for sciences now take more directly work-oriented subjects such as computing and business studies. So do many who might have opted for the arts. In 1999 French entries fell by 11 per cent, geography by 6 per cent and English by 4 per cent. Meanwhile, subjects that are perceived (not always correctly) to lead to attractive job opportunities are on the increase. Sports studies entries went up by 8 per cent, media studies by 5 per cent and business studies by 2.5 per cent. And the number studying computing rose massively - by 14 per cent.

Now that the human genome has been decoded, it will be interesting to see if young people will rush to get qualified in the sciences in the same way that they have been rushing to get wised-up to computing at the dawn of the world of e-commerce. There would surely be jobs for more than just the best of them. Scientists may have captured the Enigma machine of life, but there are still decades of decipherment ahead, to say nothing of the biotech opportunities that decoding will inevitably open up.

Perhaps it is too much to hope. Science in schools has suffered from an image problem for as long as anyone can remember. It has widely been perceived as worthy but dull, and largely approachable only through the daunting bottle-neck of maths. It has not been the career path of choice for those seeking celebrity and glamour. And, if the high master of Manchester Grammar, Martin Stephen, is to be believed, glamour has a lot to do with it. In a recent attack on our culture of celebrity in the parliamentary magazine the House, he claimed that our teenagers do not think it is cool to be clever, but it is cool to be "beautiful, rich and famous". And however rich, successful and famous a career in science might make you, it won't bring you the celebrity of Posh and Becks.

Even less will a career as a science teacher - and if the Government fails to recruit more of them, science in schools will soon be in real trouble. Of the 4,500 graduates who have applied to become teachers since the Government's announcement in March that it will pay £6,000 a year to postgraduate trainees who start next September, only 350 or so have been tempted by a £4,000 "golden hello" to learn to teach in shortage subjects. And the thrill of seeing your photo in the local paper holding aloft a teaching "Oscar" presented by Lord Puttnam does not have quite the electrifying effect of seeing yourself on Sky waving the FA Cup or a platinum disc.

But perhaps Dr Stephen is wrong. Maybe under all those back-to-front baseball caps there is more admiration of intellectual glamour than he thinks. And maybe many of those who think that Posh, Becks & Co are so very cool are content to admire them without necessarily wanting to be them. Perhaps, just as we now have so many Kylies named after a pretty Australian pop star, in a few years' time we'll all know somebody with a baby named after one of the pioneering gene-hunters of today. Just remind me of one of their names, would you?

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