Last week’s Times Eureka supplement was all about science education. Its editorial sermon began with a commonplace claim about the need to teach more kids science – “…the greatest educational challenge this country faces. Britain is running short of scientists and engineers…”
Now, I’m no expert in science education. I don’t know the debates and the facts that matter, but I know that, as with other areas of science policy, there are a lot of narratives that are repeated without examination and a lot of questions that go unasked. I write this not to be snarky, but because I am genuinely interested in a proper debate.
So, what is science education for? The Times’s claim seems to be that we need to teach more British children science so that they can become British scientists in innovative British institutions – companies, universities etc – and generate economic growth. The suggestion is that there are not enough scientists to meet demand. But from what I can tell, there is no huge unmet demand for scientists. The vast majority of science graduates leave science to work in other areas (see The Scientific Century report) where there is demand. Jobs within academic research are filled from a global pool of talent, as our universities are internationally pretty well-regarded. So we can make an argument about whether our science graduates are of top quality, but this is different from an argument about quantity. The movement of science grads out of science leads us to ask whether science education is instead a useful signalling device: a bank doesn’t really care whether someone can recite the periodic table, but a first in chemistry from Cambridge suggests that they must be pretty smart. Or maybe there are skills that are special to science that are useful in other areas – analytical thinking, patience or whatever? We might also imagine that there could be supply-side factors. Even if UK industry and universities don’t want many scientists at the moment, churning out entrepreneurial Larry Pages and Bill Gateses may make it more likely that UK start ups will take over the world.
I have no idea whether this set of factors is complete, nor what the relative importance of each is. And there do seem to be clear policy problems, like a chronic shortage of physics teachers. But the point is that these questions all lead to very different education policies. Just saying ‘we’re scientists and we think more people should be taught science’ doesn’t get us anywhere. Teaching children to be scientists is not the same thing as teaching them about science, or teaching them to think scientifically. And quantity is not the same thing as quality. If, as I suspect, the reason employers like people with science qualifications is that it proves they aren’t stupid, then that is an indictment of other bits of education, which surely need to up their game. But I stand to be corrected.