Barriers to science

Rumours about the death of the UK engineer have been exaggerated but, without cultural change, there is a danger that science and technology teaching will go the same way as Latin and Greek in UK state schools.

In 1985 I dropped out of a first degree course in production engineering at Loughborough University, partly because of a lack of workshop experience and second-year engineering maths where I got out of my depth, despite a B grade at A-level. I have heard since that this is one of the most common stumbling blocks and a major cause of youngsters dropping out of courses.

All Western countries urgently need to inspire increased numbers of future generations to pursue careers in science and engineering but there are two massive cultural barriers to be overcome.

In the UK, arts graduates, bankers, accountants, doctors and architects are still seen as more intelligent or sophisticated than engineers and scientists. This is reflected in salaries.

To earn more, UK engineers and scientists have to move abroad. The image problem is still the same now as it was 30 years ago, in spite of all the new science and technology we have seen in this period.

The other barrier is the valuation of maths and science teachers versus teachers of other subjects. For every qualified maths or science graduate teacher there are about 20 arts graduate teachers. If one follows the rules of economics, maths/science teachers are being paid one twentieth of what they are worth economically. No wonder there is a scarcity.

The shortage of people pursuing science and engineering is a problem that has been recognised by the West for many years. When Japan, Korea and China start putting people on the Moon, the UK might take notice.

But these barriers will still be firmly in place and UK science and engineering will have ended up like the Classics — the preserve of nerds and eccentrics, mainly from grammar or public schools.

Clive Hogan