Leading Article: The cost of neglecting science

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The Independent Online
IN ONE respect at least, today's A-level results make gloomy reading. The steady decline of interest among young people in physics, chemistry and maths, visible for many years, continues. Some comfort can be drawn from rising entries for technology, computing and biology, but technology still attracted only 9,213 entries and computing 9,158, compared with 86,685 for English, 46,680 for history and 53,651 for general studies. Science is still the poor relation.

This is bad news for an industrial nation trying to make a living against competitors who produce far higher proportions of scientists and engineers. Britain has fallen below leading international standards in practically every important industrial sector except chemicals, pharmaceuticals and some defence-related industries. There are many reasons, but one of the most important has been failure to innovate, which is closely related to education. Industries that cannot draw on and nurture broad reserves of scientific talent are unlikely to remain competitive.

The blame does not lie with the young people for choosing the wrong subjects. They are making rational decisions based on their estimates of prospects and earning power. They know that it is easier to get good grades in arts subjects. They also know that they will make much more money more quickly as managers, accountants or lawyers than as scientists. They can see that industry tends to skimp on research and development and undervalues scientists, who are underpaid and seldom promoted up the managerial ladder as they are in other countries. It is not the fault of pupils that British scientists are not seen as potential managers because they lack the broader education of their foreign counterparts, who mostly take many more subjects for their equivalent of A-levels.

In theory the market ought gradually to correct a steady shift away from sciences. As the supply of scientists decreases, pay should increase and opportunities expand, attracting more recruits. To some extent this is happening in schools, where premiums are having to be paid to attract good science teachers. At the same time, if pupils are put off by the difficulty of getting good grades in A-level science, universities will respond by lowering their entry requirements for science students, hoping to restore standards by graduation.

In fact, however, the market does not seem to work in this way, or it works too slowly to be of any use in solving the problem. The lag in science training in Britain has many interlocking causes to do with history, culture, social values, misconceived educational policies, industrial short-sightedness, and misdirected government spending. Years of wailing and hand-wringing have brought little or no improvement.

William Waldegrave, the minister responsible for science, will have another chance when he produces his promised White Paper on the subject. If he does not come up with better remedies than have been tried so far, one important aspect of Britain's industrial vulnerability will remain unaddressed. Among other things he could do worse than look again at the effects of narrow specialisation at A-level. The Japanese take seven or more subjects, thereby spreading scientific skills more widely among other professions while preparing scientists for a broader range of jobs, including management.