What now for science?
In my last post on this site I mentioned that, for my final school exams in Germany (the Abitur), I was tested orally in Philosophy and Physics. In my Physics oral I had to conduct an experiment measuring radiation with an ionization chamber. Everything went very well, and I was able to demonstrate what I needed to demonstrate. The examining panel of 25 or so contained about six scientists – all the others were teachers of other subjects. Afterwards the French teacher (who was one of those present) told me that the scientists had been hugely excited by my presentation. ‘I couldn’t see what the fuss was about, myself,’ he added; ‘after all, nothing happened that I could see; the dial on an instrument moved, and that was it.’
At the time I was very good at Physics, and my teacher spent some time trying to persuade me to study it at university. But in the event I first became a banker (I have the German qualification of ‘Bankkaufmann’), and then a lawyer, and then a lecturer in industrial relations. My Physics teacher kept in touch for a while, but he thought that I had betrayed the profession by not pursuing my potential. ‘Any fool or scoundrel can be a lawyer,’ he wrote in his last letter to me; and of course he was quite right.
Of course society needs people with a whole array of experiences, qualifications and skills, and not everyone has to be a scientist. But on the other hand, as we assess the issues that are likely to require urgent attention in the near future, many of them require us to have scientists so that we may address them satisfactorily. These issues include the problems we face in public health, in transport, in communications, in protecting the environment, in developing sustainable energy, in securing adequate food supplies for the world, in protecting endangered species of animals and plants, and so forth.
In the meantime, many developed countries (including Ireland) have experienced a drop in the number of young people wanting to study science at university. Furthermore – and these matters are related – those with science degrees often find that in their places of employment there is a ‘glass ceiling’ not unlike that which affects women. Scientists disproportionately rarely make it into the top levels of business and management, and even when they are successful they often earn much less than those with other qualifications, and indeed sometimes than those with none.
There are no instant answers to these problems, but there are some things we know we need to do. We need to make research careers more attractive; we need to ensure that schoolchildren are able to learn science with the help of proper, state-of-the art science equipment and laboratories; we need to address the gender imbalance amongst those studying science; we need to ensure that science is taught by those with genuine expertise and a real passion for their subject; and we need to ensure that mathematics is taught well at school. These are just some of the things we need to get right.
In Ireland, the key problems were assessed in a comprehensive way by the Task Force on the Physical Sciences, chaired by my predecessor as DCU President, Danny O’Hare. The report was published in 2002, and while it identified a number of problems and issues, it also concluded that these could be overcome by prompt action. Six years later there has not even been a formal government response to the report, though one was promised in 2004.
It is fair to say, however, that governments in Ireland and elsewhere have acknowledged the importance of science to our future, and funding to support science research in particular has been generous. But this funding will become ineffective – and indeed hard to spend at all – unless we ensure that the pipeline of world class scientists grows and is then maintained. While this is not an easy objective to fulfil, it is not an impossible one, either, and we know fairly well what needs to be done. We just have to get on and do it.
In the meantime, in this age of interdisciplinarity there are also many new opportunities for interaction between the sciences and the humanities. To link my last two posts, the topic of ethics in science is becoming more and more significant, as society seeks to ask deeper questions about which discoveries are worth pursuing and which ones need more cautious treatment. But successful and innovative science is something we will need in plentiful supply if we are to be confident about the future of this planet. The moving dial on the instrument is telling us things that are vital to our future.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, science comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.