The last month has been a particularly important time for British science. As a country we have achieved a new peak in the voyage of scientific discovery. A few weeks ago the nation held its breath as Timothy Peake was transported to the International Space Station as the second British astronaut ever to do so. But it’s not the trip itself which is most beneficial to our society; it is the inspiration that Peake has become to people all over the UK that matters most. Children across the country appeared on BBC News and revealed their aspirations to travel to space, but one was left wondering why more of them didn’t have such goals – or rather, why they weren’t encouraged to explore the world of mathematics and science before. So, is it important for young children to enter these areas, to be offered a greater grounding in mathematics, physics and chemistry or should we leave the education system as it currently is, with a reasonably equal balance between arts and science?
Firstly, it is necessary to know what the current state of education is in Britain. Until A Levels, it is compulsory for all students to take both science and maths, with the subject of ‘science’ splitting into the constituent studies of Physics, Biology and Chemistry by Secondary school. When it comes to maths, A level maths and further maths is still favoured by most schools, although the “Pre-U” qualification from Cambridge has grown in popularity, especially over the last year. This new course aims to better prepare students for university life, and ipso facto, their path in their future career. But the original question still remains; and it is an incredibly important one.
There’s certainly an argument for both sides. Those who are against change argue that it is a waste of time. It is natural in an economy to have peaks and troughs of employment in certain areas and at the moment that undulation appears to be in the sciences and maths. Furthermore, they say that the UK government already pumps enough of its resources into those subjects and to spend any more would be wasteful, even though the UK spends just 1.7% of its GDP on science and research (below the OECD average of 2.4%), although more funding may become apparent if the figures for private investment are examined. It is easy to disregard this view due to its apparent lack of statistical evidence, but it is certainly pertinent when we consider the amount of money which will have to be taken from other areas of the economy (increasing the total spent by just 0.5% amounts to $15 billion that could be used for healthcare, transport etc.).
However, although money is important, it is absolutely essential to update the curriculum if we wish to strive towards equality. The world has seen a major decline in the amount of science graduates as of late, so much so that in America, 38% of those who start with a science major do not finish their college career with one. It is also undeniable that STEM subjects lack a female demographic (women make up just 12.8% of the STEM workforce), but instead of simply balancing statistics through the use of quotas it would be far more advantageous to target the root of the problem. If sexism truly exists then artificially injecting women into the field will not help, in fact it is more likely to cause an underlying resentment of women who are employed in specific jobs simply because of their gender. No; we should be educating young people while breaking down social barriers that teach young girls that scientific subjects are typically masculine. The only way to do this is to use schools to place a greater importance on STEM studies.
It could be seen as a rather futile effort to change something that does not need to be changed. If women do not want to go into science then we cannot force them to do so; just as it would be silly to attempt to reduce the lack of male teachers in primary education. The problem with this view is that the absence of women does not seem to be an anomaly if one looks at the data. Women – in general – are less likely to be part of the quaternary sector of the economy, and it seems highly improbable that this is just due to personal choice; rather it speaks of a larger underlying problem which, as I said, can only be rectified through a higher quality of education.
Whatever your opinion is, it seems that the outcome of the debate will affect everyone: not just the scientists of the world. In the most recent general election it was an essential discussion as UKIP promised to make all STEM subjects free at university. It was hoped that this would be an efficient way of increasing the amount of science teachers in the UK and would have a knock on effect for future generations, but it is understandable that an issue was raised over this policy. It is certainly an interesting topic, and one can easily lose themselves in the facts and figures of the issue, but at the end of the day what truly matters is the advancement of science. The solution to the issue lies not just discussion now, but requires implementation and rigorous planning for the future to ensure that British science has the people and popular interest to continue to succeed in ever greater endeavours.
words by Ross McIntyre