Leading article: The skills that hold the key to our future

Share

Tony Blair will today make some pretty bold claims on behalf of science. The Prime Minister is expected to argue in a lecture that scientific innovation is as important to Britain's future as economic stability; that promoting excellence in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology, engineering and mathematics is of supreme strategic national importance.

And he will be right. Britain must today compete in a global knowledge economy. A nation's natural resources are now of secondary importance. More vital to its prosperity is intellectual capital, the skills of its population. And there are few skills as flexible and productive as those conferred by a scientific education.

Mr Blair can point to a respectable record of allowing cutting-edge science to flourish. The science budget has doubled under his premiership. And stem-cell research in particular has made good progress. The Government has farmed out regulation of this morally fraught area to an independent body and rightly rejected the sort of obstructive populist grandstanding adopted by the Bush administration on the other side of the Atlantic.

But by no means everyone in the scientific community is happy with the Government's record. Some are concerned about the apparent decline of the scientific disciplines at school and university level. They point to the falling numbers of students taking sciences at A-level and the fact that almost a third of university physics departments have closed in the past decade. They fear too that this is having a knock-on effect. Applications for teacher training in science and mathematics are in decline, despite a Government incentive scheme. An alliance of science associations warned last month that the next generation of scientists could be lost if urgent action is not taken. Controversy also erupted earlier this month over the new "dumbed down" science GCSE. All of this has created the impression of crisis.

This impression is exaggerated. There are actually more young people studying science in universities than there were a decade ago. Many have simply switched disciplines. As last year's report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England found, an increasing number of students are choosing subjects such as forensic science rather than traditional courses such as physics and chemistry. Moreover, it is not the Government's job to tell universities which departments to keep open and which to close. Universities must have freedom to think strategically if we want them to be world-class higher education institutions.

The promotion of science is not solely a government responsibility. The proportion of our GDP spent on research and development is still lower than in the United States and some of our European neighbours. This is because UK businesses are still not investing enough. The commercial demand for science graduates should really be higher.

But the state could still be doing more. Science at school clearly needs more attention. So does the bigger picture. Mr Blair rightly identifies climate change as a great opportunity for UK scientists. Britain is well placed to become a pioneer in clean-energy technology. But the Government is doing too little pump priming. There must be bigger grants specifically for this sort of research. Mr Blair should also understand that only bold action by central government to put a proper price on carbon will create a genuine incentive for business to invest heavily in clean technology research.

We need to get this right. An innovative scientific research sector is crucial to Britain's economic wellbeing. Indeed, it looks increasingly likely to be crucial to the future of the planet.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test