Courses for arts 'failures' attacked: Conversion schemes 'will not give UK scientists it needs'

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CRASH courses to turn failed arts students into scientists are not likely to provide the country with the scientific manpower it needs, Professor Sir David Weatherall, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, said yesterday.

Sir David was commenting on reports that universities were offering conversion courses for A-level students who had failed to make the grade for their chosen arts degrees, and on science's lack of popularity as a career.

'In the USA, there's a very strong feeling now that it's no bad thing to have people with an arts background coming into science, and certainly into medical school,' Sir David said. 'At Harvard medical school they are actually encouraging this kind of background.

'But that's a very different thing from taking people who failed to get into arts, giving (them) a crash course and seeing if you can turn them into scientists.'

Sir David, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, was speaking in advance of the association's annual science festival, which takes place at Keele University next week.

He said there was an anti-science atmosphere in Britain, with people's concerns centred on the environment and preventive medicine. In schools, 'well-organised' animal rights activists had been successful in getting their messages across, dissuading pupils from pursuing a science career.

'In the medical sciences, it's fascinating to see the change that's happened in the last 10 years. If you take an advertisement for a straight hospital post, you'll probably get about 20 to 30 times more applicants than for an academic medical research post,' he said.

Changes in the curriculum had blunted many teachers' enthusiasm. In addition, a teacher who had specialised in biology could now be asked to teach physics too and would find it difficult to enthuse.

Sir David said that education beyond the age of 16 should be broader for both scientists and artists.

'There is no doubt that, if you start to specialise (in science) at the age of 14, you never take any kind of arts subject seriously after that. It is a problem that does a lot of damage.'

He said the 'whole ethos' had changed. It was not just that science received a bad press, rather that people just felt uneasy about it. People felt the promise of breakthroughs had not been met. In the field of genetics, for example, people expected rapid progress and had been disappointed. But the problem was one of perspective - diseases were very complex; a gene for Alzheimer's disease was only one step forward.

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