Comment - A Lack of Investment in Science Education Will Be Disastrous for the Nation and the World
Kroto, Sir Harry, The Independent (London, England)
CHEMISTRY MADE massive contributions to society in the 20th century: from penicillin, which has saved the lives of billions of people, ammonia- based fertiliser, which has increased the productivity of arable land tenfold, to mundane objects such as the humble plastic washing-up bowl and T-shirts and non-drip paint. In the 21st century, chemistry is undergoing a renaissance, making it more exciting than ever.
We are pretty good at top-down technology, but to make further progress we need to make things directly out of atoms by a bottom- up molecule-based approach, the way biology works and human beings in particular are constructed. If we can master this exciting challenge, it will lead to materials with exceptional tensile strength and amazingly minute new devices with incredible energy efficiency and inevitably hitherto unimagined new applications. Perhaps most important is the fact that, if handled wisely, the contributions promise to be "green", transforming global economics and making further humanitarian technologies readily available to the developing world too.
At this crucial moment one must ask serious questions about the state of science education - chemistry in particular. The Government must be prepared to pay the real cost of educating scientists and engineers. Nothing exemplifies the present situation better than the case of Swansea, whose vice-chancellor has closed down chemistry, saying: "I don't want any chemistry undergraduates, they're too expensive."
These problems could be solved at a stroke by doubling the unit of resource (it would still be less than that for medicine). Furthermore, instead of using the research assessment exercise as an incentive to strengthen their science bases, many vice-chancellors are all too keen to use the data as an argument to eliminate even relatively strong research departments. Furthermore the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) must stop the diversion, by vice-chancellors, of money earmarked for science to fund the teaching of oversubscribed soft subjects with poor career prospects and negative value to the nation.
These measures are "no-brainers" in the light of the fact that scientists and engineers are almost the only groups which provide positive payback on investment. A German study indicates that, to first order, investment in science and engineering education yields a 2 per cent per year payback in tax. For almost all other subjects the return is negative. The personal return is even more lucrative at about 7 per cent.
If one then takes into account the fact that the chemistry- related industries make a pounds 5bn contribution to the balance of payments on a pounds 50bn turnover, the present apparent lack of government concern over the looming disaster is scarcely credible. Even more disturbing is the situation in our schools.
Of teachers teaching pre-16s in a given subject, 70 per cent (30 per cent) physics; 50 per cent (10 per cent) chemistry and 40 per cent (30 per cent) biology respectively do not have a degree (or an A-level) in the subject. In fact 10 per cent of pre-16s are being taught physics by teachers who do not even have a GCSE in physics! Not enough children aged 11-16, the age when charismatic teachers inspire children, are being taught by teachers with adequate subject- specific science qualifications.
However there is some good news - not a lot: our underpaid science teachers have been working hard to stem the tide and after years of decline there has recently been a slight upturn in the number of young people taking science at our universities.
This is good news because these young people are the only ones with any hope of doing anything about the most important issue that confronts the human race: survival. Chemistry, in particular, is the fundamental key to the development of the sustainable technologies we need to survive. …