Nigel Paine explains why Science Year has a vital part to play in inspiring the technologists of tomorrow to maintain the UK's impressive record of scientific invention and creativity
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The Independent Online

Catherine is 24 years old, blonde and attractive. Where does she work? Hold all stereotypes... Catherine works in Jordan Formula One, as a research aerodynamicist in one of the fastest moving industries in the world. She is an engineer. Surprised? Then read on.

Science Year wants to develop the inventors, creators and builders of the new century. It wants to inspire hundreds of thousands of young people to study science beyond the age of 16, into further and higher education. It was launched on 7 September 2001, and will run for a full year into September 2002. We have one year to convince you that the future is exciting, full of opportunity and increasingly scientific and technological. We have one year to convince you that you can do better than be mere consumers of other countries' invention and creativity.

If you walk through the Inventing the Modern World gallery in the Science Museum in London, on the way to the futuristic Wellcome Wing, you will see two centuries of British brilliance, invention and the application of science. There is a danger that, in this and subsequent centuries, corresponding levels of invention and scientific application will emerge elsewhere in the world, rather than here. If that happens, it will have severe economic consequences for us as a nation and move us down a notch or two in the world economic league.

Lighting a fire

At school today we have students who are every bit as bright and inventive as any Victorian engineer or scientist. We have huge numbers of potential influencers who will change our world. Science Year will supply the spark to ignite them into action.

There is not an immediate problem but jobs requiring a scientific and technological background are set to grow exponentially, while our output of those with the right qualifications will remain more or less static. A crisis of undersupply and over-demand will therefore grow steadily over the next five to 10 years. So the success of Science Year will really be felt in a few years.

The programme is aimed at the medium term. We want to change lives. We want a 14 year old today to make a positive choice for science in two years time, emerge from university after another six years and do something fantastic five years later. The training may end in 2014, but we will know that it all started in 2001!

Making science cool

All the major players in science and its applications are with us; every company that recruits scientists, engineers, technologists and other specialists can see why we need to do this and why it is such a high-stakes operation. We particularly want to encourage girls to get into to science and engineering because we produce, for example, far fewer female physics graduates than any of our immediate competitors. This is not good enough and we can do better. It is not that potential students are not capable: it is because they mistakenly perceive that science is boring, geeky and not for them; it is neither cool nor trendy. We want to prove otherwise.

The other myth is that a science qualification gets you into a white coat for life. We need research scientists, we need people in labs, but that is a mere fraction of the jobs available. It is easier, for example, to get a job in the City with a science background, as most recruiters know that a brain trained in scientific method can manage other people's money more securely than most. And remember that the new economy, driven by new technologies and new business models, requires many scientists and technologists to make it all work. Even in the hallowed shrine of the media, the sound and vision engineers, the designers and technologists proliferate. Lord Puttnam, chair of Nesta, has calculated that 30 per cent of the value of our creative industries is added by science, technology and engineering.

Science at all levels (not just at degree level) offers real possibilities: building the next-generation internet; developing next-generation medicines; creating tools that are atomic size; remaking and rebuilding our planet. Some of the most important and urgent needs in our world will be met by scientists. We want a significant proportion of them to be British scientists. And, by the way, I did not make Catherine up. She is a real person, and a great engineer with a fantastic career ahead of her.

More about Science Year

The website has lots more information and a growing careers section. Have a look at it if your curiosity has been roused. Email your feedback to:

Managed by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills, Science Year receives huge support from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is backed by industry and works closely with the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Science Education to spread the word.