Posted tagged ‘science’

Is there a STEM crisis in these islands?

February 26, 2014

Quacquarelli Symonds have published the QS world university subject rankings. One particular aspect of these tables has been noted in both the UK and Ireland: that while universities in these islands do well in the arts and humanities and social sciences, they significantly under-perform in science, engineering and mathematics. This must raise serious questions about the capacity of our countries to remain innovation hubs in the next wave of economic development. It raises questions about resourcing and funding, as well as questions about career planning and guidance in the education sector.

It is an urgent task for policy-makers, funders and for universities themselves to look at how our record for achievement in science, engineering and mathematics can be secured for the future. It is of course also true that excellence in the arts, humanities and social sciences is needed, but the portfolio of excellence must be balanced across the whole range of academic disciplines.


Science not yet ready for women?

July 29, 2011

In early 2010 the Royal Institution, the body that raises awareness of science and promotes its research in the United Kingdom, decided to make its director redundant, almost without giving her any notice. The director in question was Susan Greenfield (Baroness Greenfield), and when the decision was announced the suspicion in many people’s minds was that the move may have been connected with her gender and the public profile she had (to the great benefit of science, it would have to be said) managed to acquire.

The general suspicion that science is not quite ready for women continues. Research undertaken by the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology (UKRC) has suggested that women are put off science, and that the image of those women who do make it there tends to be heavily influenced by stereotypical assumptions and prejudices.

A modern society cannot afford to harbour such views and prejudices. It is time to ensure that woman have an equal role and place in the world of science.

Science and the humanities: an eternal battle?

March 29, 2010

Over recent years the debates on higher education funding have addressed not just whether that funding is sufficient, but also increasingly how it should be distributed. In this context the growing volume of science funding, often linked to economic development priorities, has sometimes raised the issue of whether science and engineering have got a better deal than the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. Sometimes this debate addresses issues of how the humanities can also stimulate the economy, and sometimes it has more generally raised the question of whether we are neglecting disciplines that have major pedagogical benefits and which moreover provide important social and cultural supports.

This issue was recently discussed in the Guardian newspaper by the columnist Simon Jenkins. He argues that an attack on the humanities, arts and social sciences set in under Margaret Thatcher, who considered these areas to be socialist breeding grounds, and that since then politicians have maintained a bias towards science funding, with Peter Mandelson in the UK completing this process. Jenkins argues that the universities need to re-assert their autonomy and their support for all disciplines on a fair basis.

It is hard to know what to do with this debate. Clearly universities, at least as a sector, need to maintain a balance between the disciplines, though this may still allow some individual universities to specialise. However, it is not helpful to suggest that there is some sort of academic class war between disciplines; in fact one of the more helpful recent developments has been the growth of interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and the sciences and the growth of joint projects between them in both teaching and research. It is also unavoidable that scientists will, in overall money terms, gain more funding than the humanities because their infrastructure and equipment is much more expensive. Nor is it entirely unreasonable to fund research that will secure major economic growth andf benefits.

However, it is also vital the universities develop a clear policy for the development of their disciplines, and that such a policy should leave no doubt about the equal value of the arts, humanities and social sciences, and their claim to be recognised as vital academic areas. It is in nobody’s interests that there should be hostility between different parts of the academy. To avoid this requires a better dialogue and more transparent decision-making.

Not adding up

June 2, 2009

One bit of statistical information that we have just discovered is far more damaging than all the figures on economic slowdown and unemployment. In today’s Irish Times education editor Sean Flynn reports that fewer than 20 per cent of students have opted to take Higher Level Mathematics in the Leaving Certificate examinations beginning this week. He expanded on this subject a little more on broadcaster RTE’s Drivetime programme.

As the response to my last post on innovation indicates, there is some disagreement amongst observers as to the value of an innovation agenda and the elements of innovation that would have the most beneficial effect on our economy. But nobody can seriously doubt that our plans for recovery are in trouble if we have such a large proportion of students who are excluding themselves from any possible education at university level in science and technology. 

What is more, we have known about this problem for a long time, and as a country are not addressing it with the kind of urgency that is now needed. Despite the Minister’s opposition (and it has to be noted again that this actually falls outside his jurisdiction), the universities do need to look again at the possibility of bonus points for Mathematics. And the government in turn needs to address the issues raised in the report of the Task Force on the Physical Sciences, which it commissioned but which it has largely ignored since its publication in 2002. The latter report is somewhat out of date, but many of the recommendations are still good.

The country’s future is at stake here. We need to do more to address this issue.

Facing up to scientific discovery

October 30, 2008

A  few years ago I was doing some research for a talk I was due to give on science and religion when I cam across a sermon delivered by a London vicar at his church’s annual harvest thanksgiving service in 1885. The following passage struck me particularly:

“Today you see in this church apples and pears, carrots and potatoes, wheat and barley. They are the fruits of the harvest, for which we offer thanks to Almighty God. God, in His mercy, works great miracles, and in His kindness clothes us and feeds us.

But there are other miracles. We have the railways, which take us at previously unimaginable speeds to places we could never have known, over great bridges and viaducts which defy nature. There is iron and steel. There are great machines, which work mysteriously and mightily. These are all miracles as well, and miracles which perhaps will touch the people of this city much more than the ploughshare and the sheaths of corn. And some will say they are not God’s miracles at all, but the miracles wrought by our scientists and engineers. In this church we say weekly that God became man. Others say and think that, with our factories and our industry, man has become God.”

Leaving aside the particular religious frame of reference which informed the sermon, throughout the periods of scientific and technological progress in human history there has always been an undercurrent also of suspicion and fear, and the gnawing worry that overcoming what we thought were laws of nature cannot be done without punishment of some sort for our arrogance. And such thoughts have not always been without foundation – as medical progress was pursued, for example, in the Nazis’ barbaric human experiments, or as chemical or biological weapons unleashed by irresponsible and cruel warlords wiped out communities.

Right now we are again at a point in scientific discovery where we need to take certain decisions. We need to come to a view whether our known capacity for particular types of innovation should or should not be pursued. So for example, the programme for government of the current coalition in Ireland between Fianna Fail and the Green Party contained two key commitments: to secure the island of Ireland as a ‘GM-free zone’, and to ensure that Ireland would be nuclear-free.

The first of these two commitments will have come as a shock to all sufferers of diabetes, as the standard drug used to treat them, insulin, is a genetically modified (GM) product. Furthermore, globally the opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is increasingly seen as a western, middle class obsession, as the imperative to feed the populations of developing countries with food containing sufficient nutrition will be impossible without GMOs. Our principles, their hunger. It is also now being argued by some that nuclear power is the only realistic way of providing an environmentally sustainable form of energy for the world.

It may be, of course, that there are powerful and good and overwhelming reasons for adhering to these principles set out in the programme for government. I am not wholly sure myself where I stand on them; but what strikes me as dangerous is that we appear to be suggesting that, as a nation, we are hesitant about scientific and technological progress, which is a dangerous impression to create, not least when we are also trying to escape from recession by attracting global R&D. The programme for government suggests, in these two statements, that we are not open to dispassionate analysis, which is very dangerous; and thankfully, on both issues debate is being conducted in a sensible way, with trade unions actually playing a very positive role.

This week in Ireland, we have also had some discussion about embryonic stem cell research, prompted by the decision to allow such research subject to certain conditions in University College Cork. Without wishing to suggest here what the correct decision is, I hope that this debate, too, can be conducted in a way that addresses both the scientific and the ethical issues raised, but does so without being driven by inherent fear of scientific innovation.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation has its risks and needs ethical oversight, but we must also remember that it has done more than anything else in human history to make possible the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, and the ending of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly.

Why we still need immigration

August 22, 2008

Following my last post on immigration, some people have written to me with comments on this topic, and based on some of those exchanges I wanted to add a post-script on this topic. One correspondent suggested that immigration was no longer right during an economic downturn: there would be no jobs to come to, or if there were they would be given at the expense of the indigenous population, who would see this happening and develop racist inclinations.

I should say right away that the threat of xenophobia or racism is always real and needs to be watched. But in so far as the comment suggests that immigration occurs in the context of a fixed labour pool and that it deprives the locals of jobs it is quite wrong. Of course the answer will depend somewhat on the types of immigration that may be taking place and the characteristics and skills of the migrants. But assuming for a moment that we manage immigration in such a way that a significant proportion of the migrants are ready to work and have some skills that we currently need then immigration is likely to stimulate economic activity and lower unemployment, even for the locals.

Without immigration we neither have sufficient numbers of skilled workers nor a high enough birth rate to persuade many investors that Ireland is a good place to develop knowledge-intensive enterprise. Recent Leaving Certificate results again show the perils we are facing as a country by the low numbers of students doing science and excelling in mathematics. What this might suggest to a company – say, from the US – looking for an overseas location for R&D facilities or high value production is that Ireland is risky as a location. If on the other hand we have demonstrated that we are willing and able to make up the shortfall by allowing immigration this may off-set the problem somewhat. The resulting investment will do much more than just give jobs to immigrants.

Immigration does not necessarily have this effect in all countries and societies and all contexts. Where the indigenous population is large and there is an economic downturn the effect of strong immigration may be negative. But Ireland’s circumstances are quite different. The truth is that if we want to maintain our recently won prosperity and see a continuing wave of foreign investment then we will need immigration. Without it we are likely to decline fast.

What now for science?

July 24, 2008

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.