19 February 2008

Making young people study science.

The title of a Daily Telegraph business blog post which reports that Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Business Council is mulling whether to lower university fees on science and engineering courses compared to the fashionable (and easier) humanities, arts and media studies courses which are attracting rakes of students and therefore lots of cash.

According to the author Mr Tyler:
The business bigwigs, who include among their number Mervyn Davies, chairman of Standard Chartered; Sir John Rose of Rolls Royce and Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco, all apparently agree that if Britain is to remain competitive something radical must be done to encourage young people into science and engineering.
Well I can think of one thing, and it's to build and launch a replica HMS Beagle for 2009. I feel three letters coming on. Standard Chartered, Tesco and Rolls Royce could dob in £1 million each and we'd be flying. I mean sailing.

Check out the comment, too. The commentator makes the point that even well-qualified scientists are poorly paid. Others lament the lack of career path or security in many sectors of UK science. You might be able to 'make' young people study science by compelling them to sit in the lab, as many of my classmates were. But the point, surely, is to inspire them. And that takes more than just chopping university tuition fees.


nunatak said...

Here's my big beef about all this: there aren't enough jobs for scientists. Even now, with the low uptake in schools, there are way too many PhD-educated scientists getting churned out by the educational system for the number of jobs available. And even then these jobs pay very poorly (especially considering the amount of education). So, when we encourage students to enter science, what we are really doing is sending them to the following doom: spend 6 years working hard hard hard for pittance to get a PhD, then spend 3-5 years doing a post-doc (pittance), then 3-5 years doing another post-doc (more pittance), then at the end of all this still not being able to find a job and having to leave science altogether at age 35-40. Would you advise a young person to enter science when this is what awaits them? Demoralising, for sure, and such a waste of government resources. The problem is the same in the USA. Surely part of the solution then is to do something to boost funding for science itself (research grants, fellowships, etc.) at the same time as encouraging more young people to enter it.

R N B said...

The comment above is the crux. A few thousand pounds here and there during student days is no big deal if looked at with proper lifetime perspective. I say this two decades after leaving science for "business". The sort of people who are going to be swayed in their most fundamental career decision by a single four figure grant are not those who would necessarily make the most rational decisions later.

There is only a small percentage of people who have relatively excellent scientific or mathematical skills. A proportion of those people will do science degrees, and a proportion of those people will continue careers in science. But those scientists are precisely the people that we need in business too. The skills needed in finance, in accounting, even in modern marketing - we need exactly that scientific skill and training provided by the taxpayer. We have trouble finding and keeping those scientific businesspeople, which is why business leaders want more of them.

So I completely agree with you. The solution is serious funding of science, not necessarily serious funding of science degrees.

Propter Doc said...

Yeah, nunatak is correct about the job prospects for scientists however I think that we're overlooking an important fact. We don't need the majority of these extra students who want to do science because it is a cheaper route to a graduate job, to actually do science.

I don't think demand for more science jobs will improve pay and conditions for scientists, it may just create a market where valuable skills go cheap and labour is easy to find. But science skills are an extremely valuable commodity to the UK.

The job prospects for many arts degrees are similarly terrible, but these kids want the university experience, and I want more British citizens with critical thinking skills, the ability to make informed choices based on scientific evidence and exposure to the ideas and concepts that are the best of humanity rather than the manipulative mind control of media. And more chemistry undergrads means more jobs for people like me.

nunatak said...

Oo, I like this comment thread. Let me make myself more clear: I think that science literacy and critical thinking skills across all disciplines is really important. Therefore this is the thing that I tend to focus on when portraying the importance of the Beagle Project. I wrankle when others (for example Gordon's "business council") seem to fixate on the number of students choosing science degrees and science careers.

Now, a specific comment for r n b: you wrote "a few thousand pounds here and there during student days is no big deal" but I'm not so sure. I knew someone in grad school who went into deep debt while she was doing her PhD and couldn't even afford her prescription medications (this in the USA of course). "Proper lifetime perspective" is a luxury reserved only for those who aren't buying discounted tinned beans for dinner every day. Also, when I referred to grants I do not mean "four figure" grants but the big ones, like over a million, the winning of which is essential if one wants to keep their research career afloat.

I agree with what both r n b and propter doc say, that scientific skills are important in other facets of life and work. However, this means that we need do a better job managing the expectations of science students, who, currently, have it pounded into them from the graduate level on that anything other than academic track ("tenure track" in the US) is failure and thus they are not offered/exposed to alternative career paths for people with "science skills".

Lastly, to propter doc: "science skills are an extremely valuable commodity to the UK". I'm not convinced. I know people who are excellent scientists doing important research in areas like cancer biology who are losing their research jobs simply because they are publishing in for example Developmental Biology instead of Cell.

Anyways, I think we all agree that science literacy and critical thinking skills for everyone is really important ...which is why I wish more people would actually SAY that instead of focusing on numbers of students taking science courses (which is what Gordon's "business council" says they want).

nunatak said...

P.S. it would seem the commenters on the linked Business blog would agree with me (okay, us)...