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Let's talk about science

Susan Watts | 15:25 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010


Science has yet to become the election issue it should, according to the chief executive of one of the UK's leading academies of science.

On Thursday morning, Dr Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), said science has to be on the agenda because of its importance to the economy and the future well-being of the country:

"It is all about, ultimately, the practical things that affect us individually - being in employment, knowing the lights won't go out in 2013, and being confident there will be better cures for age-related diseases, as we seek a better quality of life."

It so happened that I bumped into Richard this lunchtime, as he made his way back to the home of the RSC on Piccadilly.

He had just been interviewed for the BBC's News Channel about the huge oil slick that is threatening environmentally-sensitive areas along the southern coast of the United States.

How to deal with this is proving a dilemma. Is it better to burn the oil, or use chemical dispersants? What's the balance between the potential environmental damage caused by those chemicals and that caused by just leaving the oil alone? How do you plug a hole in a pipe that's hundreds of metres under water? What will be the effect on the wetlands of Louisiana?

And that is just today's example of how our world increasingly demands that politicians, and all of us, make decisions based on an attempt to understand the science behind them.

A good first step is to have enough knowledge to be able to find the right expert, and to ask the right questions. Think about pandemic flu, climate change and volcanic ash - and there are plenty more examples.

Yet the government has already said that it wants cuts of £600m from the higher education and science and research budgets.

Scientists are nervous about what the future holds, and there has been relative silence about this during the campaign.

The RSC is trying to help. On Thursday night it is hosting a debate in Loughborough, a marginal constituency where science and education are on people's minds.

Dr Pike is worried by the closure of drug maker AstraZeneca's research and development unit at the Charnwood site in the city, with the loss of up to 1,200 jobs.

He says the move raises serious questions about political commitment to science and research here in the UK, especially as Loughborough University is the major employer in the constituency:

"Innovation depends on how our world-class research community is able to engage with the wider industrial and business sectors, to develop globally competitive products and services.

"We face a reduction in this community, the prospect of a brain-drain of our best academics to the United States and China - who are increasing their budgets - while at the same time secondary education is not providing the scientific knowledge and skills that employers need.

"We need to address all this in a transparent way, and know how politicians will respond."

Of course AstraZeneca may just be making a sound business decision, but you see what Dr Pike is getting at.

We did get a taster of how politicians feel about these issues at a national debate on science and the general election - the only such debate to take place within the House of Commons itself - back in early March.

I know about that one because I happened to be in the chair for what proved a lively two-hour discussion between the science spokesmen of the three main parties.

When I met Dr Pike today, I was on my way back from a chat about new ways to think about climate policy - post election.

The pace of change in the world around us is rapid, as is the pace of change in politics.

One thing that is certain is that just at the time when science should help to inform that changing world, the next UK parliament will include alarmingly few MPs with scientific training or experience, as the old hands leave.

And with this comes the risk that science may slip even lower down the political agenda.


  • Comment number 1.


    The true tally of Nuclear cock-ups (except where they went beyond cover-up) is not known to us. What we DO know is that the total number of reactors is increasing and none are getting younger.

    Just a matter of time? If a French reactor on their Channel coast goes rogue, with the wind in the right direction, how will we fare? Are we ready? Will they tell us the moment there is a problem, or only when it cant be dealt with?

  • Comment number 2.

    Cutting research budgets now is signing a death warrant for our countries future. Companies that emerged the quickest from recession where those that cut everything else but raised R&D budgets- they now have the technological edge.

    As an engineering student, I see no reason to stay here- to be treated with the same professional respect as an unskilled worker, and to be paid multiples less in engineering rather than working for an investment bank- what is the point? I have placed myself in mountains of debt, and whilst I want to help people in my life, I can do, and be paid much more in other countries.

    The lack of engineering advisers in government shows, in that quick fixes are always chosen that cost the taxpayer much more in the long run. UK PLCs lights will go out in 2015, thanks to politicians umming and arring about nuclear power. If you want low CO2 and lots of power, it is the ONLY option in the allotted time-scale. Engineers have been saying that for decades.

    Engineers make sure it is all safe- that is our job- but we need the budget, and the experienced workforce. The UK is ALARMINGLY under-staffed in this area.

    Too much political emphasis on what the public think they want, but actually know nothing about- green issues being a primary one. Why can't I find science in any of the summary manifestos? because they don't think it matters as much as the economy- where in fact, progress is and always has been the saviour of the economy.

  • Comment number 3.

    I do a lot of youth work in my community. Over the past decade, I have found that a scarily large percentage of the teens have one thing in mind, when it comes to their post-school plans : entertainment.

    The performing arts for some. Forming a band / joining a dance group for others. Becoming a TV presenter / Radio DJ is the aspiration of several of them. And so on. Every secondary school in the area has a large art centre, and a large drama centre. The rooms allocated for maths and science are small by comparison, and don't get me started on the contents of the school libraries!

    Science? Maths? They're convinced that they can't do it. I, and many of my fellow volunteers have put countless hours into proving to them that they CAN do it - but then we find that their parents are equally convinced that their children can't do it, and we're back to square one.

    Many countries around the world insist that all students get a basic grounding in business methods and accountancy. We don't. We could have avoided the worst of the credit crisis, if the past few generations had been given the benefit of this sort of education.

    Science should be given more focus, true. But not just science. Teach our kids things that will benefit our nation as a whole. We don't need to specialise in entertainment. I'd rather we were aiming to be an economic powerhouse again, than aspiring to become the world's court jester.

  • Comment number 4.

    3. At 07:23am on 30 Apr 2010, Retro Knight wrote:
    Over the past decade, I have found that a scarily large percentage of the teens have one thing in mind, when it comes to their post-school plans : entertainment.

    As Ms. Watts' background indicates, there are some opportunities to combine the two, though the extent of the market may be quite limited, if crying out for more talent.

    Prof. Cox may have won a few converts. Though the stellar contribution of other 'scientists' as political appointees to various committees and suchlike of late may have undone much possible good.

  • Comment number 5.

    Science and engineering is the seemingly invisible and largely taken for granted thread that ties everything together.

    Most people have no idea how much engineering and science is involved in turning your tap on and getting clean water, or flicking a light switch on for instant illumination.

    They only become aware of it when those things are not available, then they tend to get so annoyed with the fact that they are not available that they rant about it... some of that sentiment seems to stick to engineers and scientists. It has become so fundamental and so woven into the fabric of our society that we are only noticed at all (and in a negative light) when things go wrong. Hence our status (arguably) is the amongst the lowest of the professions in the modern world but is (in my view) providing more value than anything else, even medicine. Doctors could not function without the foundation of science and engineering providing a stable platform from which to grow from.

    We have forgotton this fundamental thing at our peril in favour of celebrity and high reward for minimal return in value as embodied by bankers and lawyers and the like.

    Engineers work very hard every day to keep the lights on using less and less energy in the context of a world economic model which requires 'eternal growth' to function, the same cancerous 'eternal growth' which will kill us if the point of diminishing returns for that particular economic model is not recognoised and acted upon.

    I am not sure for how much longer engineers (like me) and scientists will be able to keep the lights on for you all in the context of the deeper dynamic as described above.

    But as ever, invisibly, we will do our best for you all.

  • Comment number 6.

    This casual disregard for science is nothing new to our country. To this day the UK remains the only nation ever to sucessfully develop and then abandon orbital launch capabilities. It is nothing short of tragic to think that we have produced so many great scientists and engineers over the years who have been utterly failed by the politicians. The development of railways, jet propulsion, radar, supersonic flight, aircraft carriers, all British creations which have been ignored to some degree by successive British governments and embraced fully by other nations.

    We could be - should be - leading the world.

    But we're not.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think the main issue is the main parties trying to please what is essentially an ever increasingly blind and careless population. Like others have said, people don’t care unless there is a problem that causes inconvenience to them. Most people are more interested in such trivial watered down issues, or simply what’s on the TV tonight. It is almost certainly the lack of awareness in how science shapes our daily lives that leads to poor decisions like this. I can help but think if every politician held some sort of scientific qualification beyond what they had learnt in high school the world would be a much better place.

    Everyone needs to wake up and look at the bigger picture, but I am afraid people are blind to it.

  • Comment number 8.

    Yup. As others have said, it's largely because science, technology and engineering are largely invisible in today's society, and everyone just takes them for granted. Having worked in tech support, I can tell you that no-body cares as long as stuff works, and tech support are immediately to blame the instant it doesn't.

    The good news is that a little basic knowledge does allow you, as an individual, to take action. For instance, I now have a wind turbine (amazing what you can buy off ebay these days...(other auction sites maybe available etc)) hooked up to some batteries to provide enough energy to stop the lights going out, as well as 2 laptops and a UPS unit which will function through a prolonged power cut.(The worst case is that there'll be no power cut, and i'll save some money on my electrical bill.) So, the incoming long-term power shortages won't be affecting me too much.

    The rest of you are still going to see the lights go out, though. Enjoy.

    Ohh, and I agree with the comment regarding the likes of Brian Cox, etc, getting people interested in science. For me, it was Richard Dawkins' Royal Society Christmas lecture which was to blame :p "climbing mount improbable" I think it was.... but anyway,

    It's important to make science accessible to kids starting from 7 years old and up. This involves enthusiastic presentation, and experimentation to demonstrate concepts - or "learning by seeing/doing" as I prefer to call it. It's all very well to have a textbook full of theory, but you should have some table top experiments, or at least a computer model to show. An hours worth of boring theory will inspire no-one.

    Dawkins and Cox are by no means the only ones who have the enthusiasm and drive to deliver this material, it's just that they're prominent experts in their respective fields with good track records of delivering complex concepts to a lay-audience, and tend to be the first ones the TV producers /journalists turn to for a documentary/expert opinion. Good quality science teachers are just as important, if not more so.

    TL;DR: no-body cares as long as it works, Power cuts ahoy, and good science educators are required.

  • Comment number 9.

    Nuclear power is the most regulated and safty orinented in the world.

    The last accident was Chenobole in USSR, since then hundereds of nuclear power plants have been built.

    We never had an accident at a nuclear power plant here and nor have the french who generate 70% of there power from them.

    Please grow and look at the facts.

  • Comment number 10.

    Addendum to earlier post no 5,

    Worth noting most of the Chinese leadership are engineers by background, trained in rational logical unleveraged thought processes in order to take the materials they have around them to achieve a set goal…

    You may not agree with everything they do but any rationally trained brain would recognise the following:

    - They are the new ‘smart’ new geopolitical players in the way they have methodically captured mass manufacturing, and influence over raw material suppliers while owning most of their rivals debt, which we spent to buy their goods.
    - By contrast, since the days of IK Brunel, the west has been increasingly influenced and run by people with a background in Law, accounting, banking, estate agency, insurance or something similar. As a result we now appear to be essentially broke and in a poor position to pay our way in the world in future.

    One thing engineers and scientist are not good at is the manipulation of data, cheating and using confidence tricks to cover that up all wrapped up in silky layers of meaningless rhetoric. The very things you need to get in power in this new media age it seems. Hence the influence of those best placed to govern has slowly diminished.

    What would a world governed by scientists and engineers look like I wonder?

    Maybe we will find out soon…..whether we like it or not.

  • Comment number 11.

    Its true that the general public is woefully ignorant of science and engineering as are politicians. A classic case in point is the paranoia about burying nuclear waste - trillions of barrels of oil have remained safely buried for hundreds of millions of years all over the globe, and burying nuclear should be just as safe. Of course if the oil gets out, (like in the Gulf of Mexico) its a disaster but left where it was it was so safe its comical. Just think of all those capped oil wells under the sea abandoned by oil companies… nuclear buried in a mountain on land is so much safer. But there is no perspective like this in either the minds of the population of the politicians.

    Mike - Chemistry PhD; moved to USA to find a job

  • Comment number 12.

    @3 Retro Knight

    "We don't need to specialise in entertainment. I'd rather we were aiming to be an economic powerhouse again, than aspiring to become the world's court jester."

    It might be worth noting that the arts are one area where Britain excels internationally. For decades we dominated popular music, even in the USA, and still export a great deal now. Similarly our cash-strapped film and TV industries manage to produce world quality content. And, like it or not, Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" is the biggest grossing entertainment product ever, making Hollywood movies look like small-fry.

    Having trained as a scientist before becoming a teacher of performing arts, I too am concerned about the state of science and maths education; the fact that many students only do one combined science GCSE is, to me, particularly worrying.

    But lets not assume that the cultivation of the arts and sciences are mutually exclusive. Perhaps the science world could emulate the arts' success by presenting itself as something which is both accessible (i.e. you DON'T need to be a genius to do it) and exciting. The recent 'High Tech High' article on this website showed how an American school has succeeded in both these things.

    As for students not thinking they can do science; I have taught many performing arts students who, despite clear indications to the contrary, don't believe that they can continue their studies at university. I believe the term 'poverty of aspiration' would apply equally to my students and yours.

  • Comment number 13.

    Science in engineering is not only underfunded it's overlooked. For example how many times have you seen the medical profession lauded for some new technique or medical technology when no credit goes to the engineers who created it for them. Engineers should be as highly regarded as doctors, after all a doctor without the help of engineers is just a man with a rusty knife and a bag of leeches.

  • Comment number 14.

    For once we need a long term investment in science. Creating cures for new diseases or solving the looming energy crisis doesn't happen overnight and politicians need to look beyond the next general election. There is nothing more disruptive to the scientific process or (wasteful in fact) than being allocated funding, only to see it withdrawn a year later halfway through a research project.

    And with the question of science comes education. And an opportunity for a good whinge. Yes, the quality of teaching in science and maths has decreased with a reduction in funding for higher education recently. But funding is not the only factor.

    Scientists get enormously bad press. The media continue to portray the intelligent pupil as a bullied geek and in state schools, that is generally what happens. I have no experience of any other schools. What happened to those glorious times in history when celebrities included the intelligent, the scientific inventors, those who really contributed to society? Perhaps the media (who seem to hold all sorts of powers of influence over people) could channel their energy into writing articles that spark ambition in people, or that praise the thousands of unsung hero's in the industries of science and engineering who do their job because they genuinely want to make a difference!

    It may surprise a lot of people, but there are many who dedicate their lives to science because they believe it will help build a better future for yours and our children.

    /whinge end

  • Comment number 15.

    As 'yet another' ex-scientist (PhD Materials Engineering + many years research experience), I've had to leave the profession to earn anything even approaching a living. Although I'd like them to have an interest in it, I'd certainly not encourage my own children to study Science or Engineering to undergraduate level, or beyond, there are much easier ways to make money these days. The fact is Science and Engineering have been virtually extinct in the UK for well over a decade now and I don't see any signs of that changing. Our current politicians are a silly, vain, lazy, self serving breed on the whole (I have actually met quite a few), to whom the disciplines of Science and Engineering must seem completely alien.

    Unfortunately, I found working in science incredibly depressing in many different ways, which is totally bizarre considering how fascinating the work can be and how useful it is.

    I found that in every organisation I worked for the Scientific staff were 'managed' by 'Business Graduates' with no understanding, or interest, in Science at all. They were also invariably paid far higher salaries and promoted much more rapidly, if there were any career prospects for Scientists at all - a great many organisations seem to forget that their Scientific staff might actually be bright and ambitious people too!

    In the vast majority of British people saying you work as a Scientist or Engineer engenders less respect (and interest) than working as a semi-skilled tradesman or car mechanic would. I'm not knocking those professions, they are also useful, but it doesn't make much sense does it? If I ever attended a social event and it got on to the 'what do you for a living?' query people would literally look stunned when I said I was a Research Scientist and then rapidly change the subject or look at me as if I was an escaped lunatic. I got in the habit of making up fictional careers that were more 'exciting' and 'glamorous' - things like 'Medical Research' - just so I had something to talk about which people would understand and admire. Oddly, I've always found anyone who was NOT British thought being a Research Scientist WAS exciting, glamorous and well paid! Now I do a 'normal' (e.g. non-scientific) job I find people are a lot more appreciative and interested in what I do for a living and will chat for hours about work with me in a way that never happened when I worked in Science and Engineering. In reality my current job is no where near as interesting though.

    I also think this article has probably only been read by the very small minority of people who do (or more likely did once) work in Engineering and Science. Everyone else will ignore it due to it being 'boring' anyway and scroll down to the 'thrilling' entertainment or sport articles.

  • Comment number 16.


    ''people would literally look stunned when I said I was a Research Scientist and then rapidly change the subject or look at me as if I was an escaped lunatic.''

    I can relate to all that you say from my own experience also.

    The consensus of sentiment expressed above is one of bewilderment as to how the things which provide the most value are the least fashionable?

    There does not appear to be any tangible way people like us can penetrate through the 'political. lawyer, media and banker class' defensive positions without becomming like them.

    I can see the world reaching a point where it will become entirely disfunctional and chaotic, perhaps only then, in the midst of chaos will governance by unleveraged reason come to the fore once more.

    For example (hypothetical), I would not be surprised if it was accountants that made the final decision to not spend that extra 1/2 a million on contingency fail safe measures on the blow out preventor system for the deep drilling rig in the Gulf.

    I know alittle of such things, extremeley robust blow out prevention systems can be built that will work post 'blow out' even if the 'recoverable' valve system does not, but it is probably an accountants decision not an engineers decision in the final amalysis as to whether a blow out prevention system, which will work, but will destroy the well costing millions to recover it later should be fitted as an ultimate fail safe device.

    If you extend the dynamic described above to the way the world is run as a whole, you can start to see why things have been going so wrong recently, it is all part and parcel of the same underlying dynamic, a victory of manipulation for personal gain over substance for the greater good.

    The trouble scientists and engineers have is that in order to be good, credible scientists and engineers you can only engage with thought processes that are methodical and truthful with a final aim in mind. Otherwise what you are trying to create will not work and that will soon be discovered and your reputation will be hit.

    No such problem for the governing classes and the controlers of capital it seems where rewards can be astonishing for manipulating data (aka cheating)

    We do not engage in or understand 'spin' or manipulation and we are therefore ill equiped intellectually to deal with it or combat it even though the intellectual and moral high ground clearly sits with our approach to problem solving.

    I dont know what the answer is, maybe there is no answer and it is simply part of a larger cycle of nature, which nature, in its own way, will sort out and redress the imbalance.

    To use another analogy, this time of the titanic, it hit an iceberg because of a desire for prestige to make the fastest crossing when conditions did not suit. After the spin doctors had made that call the engineers dutifully manned the pumps and the relay switches to keep the liner afloat and illuminated for as long as they could, pretty much all of those individuals died at their posts, unknown, they did buy enough time for the women and children to escape though, but they went down with the ship along with the spivs.

    Who would choose to be an engineer indeed? Especially in atime when religion has largely disappeared, the gardens of paradise would surely be largely inhabited by engineers and scientists, but if the gardens of paradise do not exist, who would ever be an engineer ort a scientist?

    Apologies for the last bit, I have abit of atendancy to drift off from science and engineering and into the realms of philosophy.

    Anybody know the answer?

  • Comment number 17.

    SpeelingMistake is 100% right about the need for constant investment in R & D, pitched at the right level, being the single most influential factor in determining a country's current and future well being. If you think education is expensive, try ignorance, and see just how much more expensive that will be. SpeelingMistake is also 100% correct about nuclear power. Listen to the scientists, engineers, the experts, they are the problem solvers. If you are anti-nuclear power read what Stewart Brand (Whole Earth Discipline) and James Lovelock (Gaia) have to say about nuclear power, and if they do not convince you, then likely you are both very ignorant and bigoted. A "frog in a well" to use an old Chinese expression, someone with limited horizons, self-imposed. The Greens have done the real environmental movement, humanity, and themselves a great disservice.

  • Comment number 18.

    This article highlights a serious issue that is indeed largely ignored by most people in Britain. I am a case in point supporting Dr Pike's assertion that unless the government gets serious about funding R&D our best people will leave. I have a PhD in chemistry and a passion for R&D but sadly the opportunities weren't available in the UK. As others have mentioned many of the job interviews I applied for didn't seem to have people who actually knew anything about science on the panel. It struck me that administrators were in charge not the scientists-how can this be?

    In regard to the image of science I too have often met the 'You're a scientist! Oh, er, the weather been really strange this week don't you think?' attitude often. Where I work now I'm well paid and the respect I have for my work is far greater than the cynicism, ignorance and fear I encountered in the UK.

    A final thought, the government keeps saying science and engineering are vital to the future economic well being of the country. It's time for them to put their money where their mouth is before irreparable damage is done.

  • Comment number 19.

    Well how about a discussion on how many of the current candidates in this election, like Philippa Stroud, seem to believe in demons? I'd like to see the evidence and the intellectual reasoning of such candidates before I vote. Law makers who just don't require evidence is kind of, well, bizarre at best.

    The silence is so loud and very very clear.
    Now how many times in one day did I hear a private conversation of a certain Mr Brown.

  • Comment number 20.

    As a graduate in a healthcare science I'm quite concerned about the 'Modernising Scientific Careers' policy that has been suggested for the NHS laboratories. I am desperate to work in the field but have found that I will not be employed until I am registered with the Health Professionals Council but to become registered I need to train for a year in a hospital! It's nearly impossible to get work experience due to the need for CRB and other checks and there are very few trainee positions available. It seems that most employers are expecting every member of trained staff to need a MSc and I simply can't afford to pay for a post-grad qualification without support as I paid more than twice the amount for my degree than previous graduates.

    I have also tried to look for positions in academia and the private sector but keep getting rejected due to lack of experience and potential budget cuts mean that competition for PhD studentships rules many in my situation out. It's rather frustrating that I have a good set of GCSEs, A Levels and degree and I'm expected to work in a different field for minimum wage. I'm sure I'm not the only person in this position and it just shows that young, talented scientists are going to be lost which is a shame given the role Britain has traditionally played in scientific developments. Given my predicament I'm not suprised that science has barely been mentioned.

  • Comment number 21.

    Why don't you say 4mg instead of 4000 micrograms? There's an outside chance someone may be watching, so why not attempt to communicate as well as just appearing on tv? Now that would be refreshing!

  • Comment number 22.

    Why has Science has yet to become the election? It should be as it's the ticket to the future of the human race, The government have been cutting research budget for the last few years and science is stil not part of the election process.


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