back to article UK's future depends on science and technology

Lord Sainsbury has called for an overhaul of the way science and technology is taught in Britain, saying that without a new approach we risk losing our place in the global economy. He says more specialist science teachers must be trained or recruited, and that science students must be given better careers advice. The report, …


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  1. Steven Jones

    About time

    For a long time it has seemed that the educational and media approach of this country has been to tain people in the ability to talk about science rather than practice it. We can see this in the frankly appalling state of TV coverage of science issues in the BBC (witness the state of Horizon and the appalling approach Panorama took to the school WiFi issue). Much of this is sold under the wrong-headed notion of making things "accessible", largely by down-playing what is the essence of the scientific method. That is an attempt to try and be objective. This is not helped by the mislabelling of some subjects (such as sociology) as "scientific" and the growth of relativism.

    We now see approaches to the teaching of science full of politicised issues with the ability to repeat acceptable policy lines ranked ahead of attempted objective analysis. Given that parliament is stuffed full of those trained in advocacy (namely lawyers) and not in analysis, then you can see why this happens.

    Certainly the lack of trained science teachers in schools is a real problem. However, where are the replacements to come from? I see all through business and much of scoiety that the ability to advocate is held far above that to analyse.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward



    that'll be why I'm being replaced with a cheap Indian college graduate after 7 years of service.

    We'll be right in the forefront soon!

  3. john mann

    The direction's wrong... for the last 25 years at least (YMMV), the British McEconomy has been in a race to the bottom, not the top.

    Too little, too late...

  4. Richard Conyard

    University research

    If Lord Sainsbury wants more firms spun out of university research his first recourse should be to approach the universities to amend their draconian policies on IP developed whilst attending university.

    I know of more than a few graduates that have put off developing ideas whilst at university since under the terms of their study they would have been either owned by the university outright, or in majority; this regardless of any university resources used in the development of the IP.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    True, true ...

    The manufacturing base has shifted and I am sure those countries will also develop considerable inhouse skills over the years.

    I am also sure that a combination of skills and innovation will do the UK good - extra emphasis from emerging countries adds extra drive. But! or rather BUT! this is not limited to education and seems sector none specific. UK service industries, if recent experience is anything to go by, is brilliant.

  6. Bill Fresher

    Deja Vu

    They say the same every few years but never seem to realise that jobs in science pay rubbish. Have a browse in the New Scientist job section and you'll find a ton of adverts asking for: First or Upper Second Class Honours degree from a top university, relevant PhD + minimum 3 years postdoctoral experience £18-23k.

  7. Dunstan Vavasour

    University science for the sake of science

    It doesn't matter what sort of flim-flam the politicians come out with, as long as university science departments are closing they are just spouting hot air.

    So why the shortfall in applicants which is resulting in physics and chemistry departments closing? Because in our headlong dash to increase the numbers of students, we've lost sight of the reason for universities. Universities used to be places of learning, where knowledge and thinking were valued in and of themselves. There were vocational subjects, such as medicine, engineering and law, but both science and humanities were mostly studied as a quest for knowledge.

    Once the massive expansion in universities got under way, their character changed to being places which get people ready for work. The whole settlement changed, and the justification for saddling graduates with tens of thousands of pounds of debt is "because they will recoup that when they start work". So, once potential undergraduates have to do a cost/benefit analysis of their chosen course of study, the idea of learning for learning's sake, science for science's sake disappears. Politicians have knowingly killed off the study of pure science, and to start bleating about how we must safeguard our position is offensively wide of the mark.

    Please excuse the rant, but the crocodile tears really put my back up.

  8. gareth
    Paris Hilton

    why not just actually make the teaching accurate..

    and up to date

    i did 6 months of teacher training, i am a geologist by training and had to teach the kids theorys on continental drift that had been debunct 7 years earlier while i was still at school the rate of change in teaching is far to slow. science teachers get into a routine and few actually keep up to date with current science in their areas of expertise and only modify what they know and theach when changes are made to the curiculum. this may get the best results for students in exams but the education boards should update the syslabus more often and stay with current science .

    they could also do with bringing back the cool bits of science like messing with dangeroues chemicals but tree hugging nanny state britian is to scared to let kids do experiments with mercury or acids. kids aren't stupid you show them something is dangerous (i.e pouring strong acid on a peice of meet they will treat it with recepect. however you give them a bottle of acetic acid(vinegar) and tell them its dangeroues they will know your taking the piss and react in kind.

    kids also don't care about the biology of plants on the whole there are a few that want to be botanist but its reasonable to assume most will be board and as most gcse science revolves around plant biology you wounder why people don't like science anymore

    change what is taught to get people interested instead of rubbish carrers advice (i don't think i ever had a peice that was relevant)

  9. Brendan Weir

    If it's that vital...

    Will we see the creation of a Ministry of Technology that will invest in and nurture British innovation, champion the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and promote the wider understanding of scientific issues in the face of quackery, FUD and hysteria?

    Or do we get a subcommittee under the Department of Trade run by bean counters wanting instant financial gratification at the cost of losing out to countries with greater long-term vision?

  10. This post has been deleted by its author

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    the real shame

    - is that the science courses are so keen to develop "broadness" they neglect "incisiveness" which is the absolute core of science. I say learn one thing well and understand the benefit of scientific clarity. you can relax the constraints later, but some people are naturally very good at the absolute stuff, and are born engineers/scientists, and yet are kept back from the thing they do best, and are dwindled off into vague problems that have no answers. Never mind trying to co-opt others into the field, what about ensuring we capture those with the aptitude first?

  12. Colin Wilson
    Dead Vulture

    How the hell...

    ...can the UK ever possibly hope to improve education in physics and chemistry when having a copy of the Anarchists Cookbook (the content of which is freely available in *any* library) is enough to put you on trial for terrorism.

    When you turn a schoolkid with a basic chemistry book into a terrorist, it's only a matter of time before the government does a deMenezes on more random targets "just in case".

    The best teacher I had in school was a chemistry teacher who'd tell everyone not to mix chemicals x & y while he left the room - it wasn't particularly dangerous, but it sure as hell kept us all interested in the subject !

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pretty much all of the above . . .

    Science in schools has been diluted to the point of absurdity in the interests of attracting more candidates but when there is no challenge there is no sense of achievement.

    As mentioned above there are now NO science programmes worth the name on British television (Horizon in particular is a hollow mockery of the programme it once was). The BBC used to have a science forum (which drew frequent and repeated complaints about Horizon, etc.) but the last time I visited it it had been banished and the only science forum was in the schools section - I wonder why?

    I even saw a quote somewhere from some government flunky that 'physics is not all about numbers and precision' - well excuse me if I disagree from my perspective of a Ph.D. in the subject.

    Crocodile tears indeed . . . . .

  14. Name
    Gates Horns

    Put the money where the mouth is

    I'll know they are taking science and technology seriously when they double the pay of scientists and engineers. Until that point its just empty pointless rhetoric.

    Oh, and taking some MBA who parrots "ideas are worthless" outside and introducing him to Mr Cricketbat. Most of the reason we are not "a powerhouse of ideas" is because they are actively killed rather than supported and helped by these low quality, process based jerks.

  15. Ken Hagan Gold badge


    "At the moment students aim for arts degrees a) because they are easier to get into and b) because they are easier to graduate from."

    Oh gosh, you can't say things like that. *Everyone* knows that standards have not slipped in the slightest and syllabusses are chosen so that all subjects are equally difficult. Students merely choose the subjects that interest them. The rush away from science and languages towards media studies merely reflects the fact that kids today can't imagine anything more satisfying than a life spent "consuming" junk TV.

  16. John Prew
    Thumb Down

    Its partly about the fees

    I was at university the year they broke into the tuition fee idea and abolished all my grants. Instead i was expected to get out a loan. My father was a cotton miller, and my mother a childminder (hows that for a 'northern stereotype'). I was studying Biochemistry with Biotechnology. I took out my loan, and it didn't even go part way to covering my books after fees took it all. I looked into finding part time work....but with a 37 hour study course....who realistically could afford the time to do a part time job as well and expect to do well? Needless to say, after looking at the situation logically, i could not continue at university. And my payscale afterwards wouldn't have been worth the years of hardship i'd have put my family through.

    Physics students were expected to do 40 hours at my university.Other Science and Technology subjects simililarly high had to do 15.

    So instead of bemoaning the lack of graduates, the UK government should accept that I and others like me were 'priced out' of the graduate system, by their policies. Upping the pay scale, or preferential funding for Science students is something i can see resolving this slightly, but students aren't stupid, why go through years of being broke and working long hours, when you can do a 15 hours a week course and still be able to say you have a degree?

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not worth it

    As my family's experience shows, a bright young person who is also hard-working, diligent and a good team member can spend four years and thousands of pounds collecting a BSc and an MSc, only to languish in a dead-end job earning way less than the national average. (An average that, of course, includes lots of people who never even went to uni, and who are doing real McJobs).

    Sure companies and the government want lots of trained scientists. Well, in that case, let them pay decent salaries! I wouldn't advise any young person going to uni to contemplate a science degree UNLESS they are outstanding enough to be one of the handful who get the top research jobs. Even those people are shamefully underpaid.

    Things haven't really changed much since 1975, when I got talking to a minicab driver during a trip through London. He told me, with no particular anger or resentment, that he had spent some years designing complex integrated circuits for a leading British defence contractor (it may have been Plessey). But when he got married and had children to support, the salary for his chip design job wasn't enough to make ends meet - so he resigned and took to minicabbing, which paid much more!

    That's the British attitude to science and technology in a nutshell.

  18. IanKRolfe
    Thumb Down

    Science has fallen into disrepute...

    ...because an enormous amount of "scientific" research these days (certainly that gets reported on) are basically statistical surveys, and the research never gets far enough to look for underlying causation. The ability of statistics to be interpreted to support whichever point of view you wish to promote has become common knowledge to the public at large, and the treatment of "science" by the government over the last decade has done little to dissuade the public that "science" is just a synonym for "statistics".

    Just look at the science pages on the BBC News site. Headlines like "Carrots cause cancer" are supported by - yes, the results of a statistical survey, with no mention of a causative mechanism being discovered. Then a few weeks later another survey comes out that disagrees with the first, and the general populus is left with the opinion that science is just a matter of opinion, faith or perspective like politics or religion.

    What a travesty of the truth. Why has the scientific community allowed its reputation to become debased since the glory days of the late 1900's? Could it be because funding of science has become such a low priority that now scienctists have to be the whipping boy of politicians and commercial backers, and find statistical support for their agenda's?

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    What a joke

    As an unemployed PhD trained research scientist, I have to laugh at the "oh no we need thousands and thousands more scientists" that appears in the press every so often. To do what exactly? Good scientist jobs are few and far between. Most are the science equivalent of McJobs, except you need a minimum of a degree which saddles you with 10,000 pounds of debt. And as many people have posted here and elsewhere for the difficulty level involved the pay is absolutely lousy. Typical example -


    Process Chemist



    Do you have a PhD in Chemistry?

    Have you covered practical work in organic synthesis?

    Do you want to work in a process research and development laboratory?

    This role will involve practical organic synthesis in a Process R & D laboratory in support of Drug development projects.

    Key Accountabilities:

    * Evaluate potential new routes to drug

    candidates through experimentation.

    * Carry out reaction profiles and isolated compounds by analytical techniques: HPLC, GC, MS, NMR, TLC.

    * Collect, organise and interpret the data required for projects.

    * Develop stages in a synthesis to address yield, throughput, purification and isolation.

    * Communicate with employees in Process R & D.

    * Liase with employees in Development Manufacture to develop a laboratory process.

    My client is one of the World's leading pharmaceutical company. They discover & develop, manufacture and market effective new medicines for treating some of the world's most serious illnesses.

    If you have the skills required and are interested in this position then we would like to hear from you.

    So why would anyone want to be a research scientist in the UK? Whoever reads this do your children a favor and tell them to ignore the crap they feed you about a scientist shortage, and go for a different career. They are only thinking of themselves to keep the cheap labor supply going. I'm willing to bet none of their children is going into science. Sorry if this sounds a little bitter, but i am.

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