Scientific clues

This week the chancellor announced yet another science strategy aimed at making the UK more competitive in an increasingly hi-tech world. Fiona Harvey reports.

This week the chancellor launched a fresh science initiative to make the UK more competitive in an increasingly high-tech world. But is it already too late?

Brown’s enthusiasm for science is well known. He has taken a personal interest in ensuring that science receives its fair share of resources in successive budgets. Last year he announced a spending increase on science, and he has masterminded the R&D tax credits system that is benefiting many UK firms. Two years ago he opened the UK’s National E-Science Centre in Edinburgh , and has been a strong supporter of regional science centres.

Last month, in a speech to the EEF, Brown warned that ‘the UK would have to make it a priority to invest in what is the key to our whole economic future and well-being: our science and our skills.’ This is strong stuff, and a hugely encouraging vote of support for engineers.

So when Brown launched his latest strategy this week, it should have come as little surprise to the engineering community. The chancellor plans to make the UK one of the most attractive places in the world to locate science and engineering businesses.

Over the next few months he will announce an assessment of science and innovation in the UK, and on the basis of this a new 10-year investment framework will be set out. That will represent an increase in investment over and above the increase that the Treasury has already put in place.

Science and engineering were already due to receive £3bn in 2005 to 2006.

We should be delighted that the chancellor not only understands how essential science is to a modern economy but is also prepared to put his money where his mouth is, considering the pressure on resources from other directions.

To spearhead the new strategy Brown gathered an impressive set of minds around him. At the Downing Street conference announcing his plans he appeared with Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust; Richard Lambert, author of a recent review of university and business links, Sir Tom McKillop, chief executive of AstraZeneca and Gareth Roberts, from the Skills Council. It all adds up to an impressive boost for UK science and innovation, which will see the current system of tax credits expanded and more public money for research.

All of this is wonderful news. And it would be churlish not to appreciate the chancellor’s efforts in putting science at the top of the economic agenda. Few other of his cabinet colleagues seem to have the slightest clue about science and, worse, even fewer of them seem to want to amend their ignorance.

But forgive me if I don’t cheer too loudly. Because the problem with all this effort, the new investment and the recognition of the importance of science is that it’s all rather late. The problems with the UK’s science base are deep rooted. They are not going to be solved within the next 10 years, even with the chancellor’s support.

They lie in the lack of scientists coming through the education system. While the number of young people going into higher education has increased, the number of scientists has stayed remarkably static.

As a result, we don’t have enough science graduates. And as fewer graduates enter teaching that creates a vicious circle: fewer secondary school pupils are taught by scientific specialists, and they in turn have less desire to pursue science subjects.

Now we hear that maths students may be given extra money in order to encourage them into teaching, to assuage the dire shortage of trained maths teachers. And the Institute of Physics has floated the idea of providing bursaries to students who take physics degrees. Other scientific bodies may follow this lead.

These measures smack of desperation. They may help a little, but do not strike at the roots of the problem: youngsters do not choose science because it is perceived as hard, and their parents and teachers do not encourage them into scientific subjects.

And why should teachers or pupils opt for science? In the current climate of constant testing and school league tables it makes little sense. The sciences require disciplined thinking, plus a certain amount of unavoidable rote learning. When students are under so much pressure to perform, little wonder that they choose subjects that seemingly require less preparation, discipline and testing. Teachers, under just as much pressure from Ofsted and the league tables, cannot be blamed if they allow pupils to maximise their grades potential in this way.

If pupils are encouraged into higher grades at all costs, at the expense of a rounded education that includes the sciences, then they will continue – quite rationally – to choose arts over science.

We need more science teachers now, or the science and engineering base that Brown has recognised as vital to the UK’s economic future will be damaged beyond repair.