How many experts does it take to switch students on to science?

Article by Vanessa Spedding on ethical careers in science, Science and Public Affairs, September 2007

It’s more than five years since Gareth Roberts published his much-cited review, which found serious shortages in the supply of people with high-level maths, physics, chemistry and engineering skills. Since then funding for science has increased. Energy and cash have been pumped into public engagement activities. People in departments formerly known as the DTI and the DfES collaborated on programmes to address the problem. Without doubt, encouraging results have transpired; we have new centres of excellence to further the skills of science and maths teachers (see SPA December 2006, p8), a new science GCSE and thriving science cafes and festivals across the country. Yet young people’s interest in science and technology is still on the wane. Are these good intentions perhaps missing a trick?

STEM graduates declining

Earlier this year, a report from the Council for Industry and Higher Education and LogicaCMG (see SPA June 2007, p8) revealed that behind the short-term growth in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates is a progressive decline in those taking STEM A levels – the next generation of graduates. The CBI has stated that the number of new science graduates will have to double by 2014 to prevent British employers looking overseas for recruits. The Campaign for Science and Engineering and the Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry also regularly lament the situation.

This level of concern is shared at the top. Witness the summer reshuffle of government departments that transmuted the DTI and the DfES into three new departments including the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). It’s no surprise that innovation, universities and skills are segments of the same umbrella, nor that science comes under it. While throwing himself into plans to meet the STEM skills challenge, Ian Pearson, the new minister for science, might do well to take note of another trend that has occurred in parallel with the decline, for it could contain a clue to that missing trick.

Focus on ‘why’

It happens also to be five years since 2000 students aged 16-19 revealed via a survey1 that they were as interested in the ‘why’ as the ‘how’ of science. More than half wanted more emphasis on the moral and ethical implications of the science they were studying in the classroom.

Over that time, campaigning organisation Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) has reported a huge growth in interest in its project Ethical Careers in Science, Design and Technology2. Its Ethical Careers Briefings are flying off the presses and web site despite minimal publicity; in the last year, around 7000copies were ordered or downloaded. SGR is also invited to exhibit at dozens of university careers fairs where, suggest anecdotal reports, interest is keen and growing rapidly, with many science students turning their backs on the flashy displays and large salaries of commercial and military recruiters to find out how they can help the planet instead.

A survey of university applicants undertaken in June this year by the university clearing house UCAS and Forum for the Future3 showed a very high level of interest in sustainability issues and a strong desire for college courses across the board to address environmental concerns seriously. Of the 54,240 students surveyed, more than three quarters expressed a belief that lifestyles would need to change radically for human civilization to survive into the next century. The survey left no doubt that environmental and social concerns and the opportunity to address them in their prospective careers shape student choices very strongly.

Science for positive futures

Isn’t it staring us in the face? More students will take science once they no longer perceive that so many scientific careers are concerned with exploiting the natural resources of the planet rather than restoring them. More students will take science if it encompasses science for sustainability (a subject, incidentally, that is taking off in the USA but still barely evident in the UK). More students will take science once they are confident their career options won’t default to towing the line in a corporate world where ethics may be compromised in pursuit of profit.

Those with ears to the groundswell can hear a student voice that is calling on government to invest in scientific endeavour – as both an academic activity and an economic sector – that is aimed at solutions of intelligence and maturity, not greed and short-termism: conflict resolution not war; resource management not resource grabs; appropriate technology not consumerist gadget-technology; knowledge and wisdom, not opportunism; that is, scientific endeavour that is geared to creating a positive, lasting future for life on the planet.

  1. DfES (2002). Young People Review Science Curriculum.
  2. See
  3. UCAS and Forum for the Future (2007). Future Leaders Survey. See

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