Leading article: We cannot afford this scientific brain drain

Education is important, but action is needed in other areas too

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:46

The "science in crisis" alarm bell is being rung at increasingly regular intervals these days. The latest organisation to do so is the Confederation of British Industry, which complains that there are not enough scientists graduating to meet the needs of industry.

So is there really a crisis, or is this just a case of special pleading by a particular sector of the economy? As convenient as it would be to write the alarm off as special pleading, it is hard to deny the force of the CBI's argument.

A decline in science teaching and practice has national strategic implications for Britain. Economic success in the modern world is far less dependent on a country's natural resources, and owes much more to the skills and expertise of its population. When one considers the challenges of the coming decades for Britain, from developing renewable energy technologies, to designing greener transport networks, the economic value of trained scientists becomes clear.

Our open economy has been able to cope with the shortage of science graduates so far by hiring them from abroad. But there may well come a time when these workers find the pull of home stronger. It would be short-sighted to ignore our domestic scientific skills base.

A vicious circle is at work in our education sector. A recent report from the University of Buckingham found that almost a quarter of secondary schools in England no longer have specialist physics teachers. Such shortages mean that the sciences are being less well taught in schools and fewer students are pursuing them at university as a result. The pressures get worse at university. Those bright scientists who make it that far are highly sought after by the financial services sector, which pays high salaries for their skills. The City of London benefits, but it means Britain gets fewer science teachers and working scientists.

The CBI is urging the Government to require all capable teenagers to take three separate science subjects in secondary school, rather than combined science qualifications. The Government seems amenable. It is promising that, from September, good students will be "entitled" to study triple science. Yet ministers should be more radical. The dire condition of science teaching strengthens the argument for moving to a baccalaureate system in secondary examination. Children in England are channelled too early into making a binary choice between the humanities and the sciences in the narrow A-level system.

It is difficult to identify any easy solution. Children cannot be forced into the sciences in the way that they were in the old Soviet Bloc, or pressured into them for the greater glory of the motherland by an authoritarian government, such as in modern China. But simply because such methods are not available to us, our response should not be to give up. Greater financial inducements should be made available for graduates to train as teachers or scientists. These sums will never compete with the City salaries, but they should help to make the sector more attractive. And there is scope for top graduates to teach for a few years before going on to do something more lucrative. The success of the Education Department's Teach First scheme shows the potential of such arrangements.

The business sector should also be encouraged to do more, too, in the form of university department bursaries and sponsorship schemes for students. After all, it is the business world which stands to lose most of all if our national scientific knowledge base continues to be depleted. If we are to restore science to pride of place in the British education system, all need to play their part.

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