Contemplating Education Matters

This past week it was announced that I would be assuming the Presidency of the British Science Association (the BSA, formerly simply the British Association or the BA). It is a great honour to be asked to follow in the footsteps of so many of the most illustrious scientists of the last 170 odd years. The list of previous incumbents is truly humbling. My immediate past predecessors are Lisa Jardine and Paul Nurse, the present holder, both amazing people with myriad claims to fame. When the news ‘broke’ on Twitter (of course I’ve known for months) I was touched by people’s positive responses and good wishes. Thanks all!

I was also pleased to get an email on Friday evening inviting me to write a piece for this week’s Observer on the back of this. Of course the timescale was tight – the more so as I was hosting a rather important dinner that night in College for the Moving Mountains Conference run during the day, with special guest Stephen Hawking. This fascinating conference was about overcoming chronic health problems (physical or mental) with exercise and the Friday night Hall was full of around 400 people, mainly students, come to listen to Hawking’s pre-recorded words. If I had ever been uncertain about the meaning of celebrity, watching around half of these students leap to their feet clutching their smart phones, cameras flashing, as Hawking started to speak would have made all plain. The emotion in the Hall was tangible. It was very moving. Such an evening was not the time to mull over what I should write for the media in the wake of my new role!

The main duty as BSA President is to give the Address at this year’s BSA meeting in Bradford in September. I have six months to think about what to say, so what I wrote for today’s Observer may or may not form the focus of my address all those months hence; I have no idea….time will tell. But, asked to write an opinion piece at short notice it seemed obvious to me that a logical place to start is our education system. It is, shall we say, far from ideal. When I was involved with the production of the Royal Society’s Vision report for science and maths education over the next 20 years, published last summer, we were all sure that we wanted to see education cease to be treated as a political football. We were equally sure that England’s system of requiring children to decide, essentially at 14, where their futures lay in disciplinary terms was bad for everyone. It is bad for aspiring scientists and it is bad for those who don’t think science is for them. We need to make sure that everyone can write and analyse a text, but that they also understand the meaning of the technical words they are bombarded with day by day and know when the evidence points one way rather than another.

Democracy requires scientific literacy, not just familiarity with Shakespeare. It requires everyone to know when politicians are trying to bamboozle them or cherry pick the evidence. If 99% of scientists believe in climate change, balance does not mean producing the 1% who don’t in equal numbers on a panel or broadcast. But equally it does require scientists to be able to string their arguments together cogently and have some grasp of subjects beyond their own. Why in England do we have an education system that makes this so difficult? This is of course nothing new. The gold standard, so-called, of A-levels has been around for more than 50 years. Back in my own schooldays I suffered from the fact that I couldn’t do A-level German to accompany my standard science A-levels of double maths, physics and chemistry because of timetabling problems. The school, far-sighted as it was, would have permitted it but after a term when I could only get to one lesson out of however many there were each week because of timetable clashes, I gave up with regret.

I was also the generation that had to take the rather incomprehensible subject Use of English. I say incomprehensible because I, for one, never worked out what the point of these lessons was. Not that I didn’t think there was a point in learning how to use English better, but what our lessons were meant to be about escaped me. If we had been better trained in précis (a subject we had been exposed to at O-Level, and a very useful skill it was and is), or technical essay writing – as opposed to ‘creative writing’ – I would have appreciated it. But, as it was, it seemed a fairly shapeless and aimless sort of class.

For non-scientists there are ways to teach ‘the scientific method’ (leaving aside the question of whether there is such a single thing) that should encourage critical thinking. Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science is an excellent way to present analysis of over-hyped and unsupported claims encouraging appropriate scepticism or even cynicism. It does not require detailed knowledge of mathematical formulations or the ability to label all the internal organs of the human body to appreciate the arguments he puts forward for evidence. This sort of literacy would be an invaluable life skill our students are not taught. There is some movement towards further teaching of basic mathematical skills for all post-16, something undoubtedly to be valued, but no talk of extending breadth any further than this.

Some years ago when researching useful quotes for a talk I was giving, I came across the following by the novelist Lucy Ellmann

The purpose of artists is to ask the right questions, even if we don’t find the answers, whereas the aim of science is to prove some dumb point.

From this I deduce that she thinks that working out why antibiotics are ceasing to work, or why autism is not linked to the MMR vaccination are no more than just ‘dumb points’, a terrifying thought for someone to have. It is because the science-humanities world is so divided that someone can publicly stand up and make a remark like this with honest conviction and yet be so hopelessly naïve. Why do we continue to allow our schoolchildren to be forced into this?

As a final point one might look at the Civil Service. We have moved on from a culture in which an Oxbridge Classics education was what it took for easy admission, but perhaps not as far as one would like. I have recently agreed to chair the Scientific Advisory Council at the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, a committee that is being revived after a period of non-existence. This is a department (possibly now the only Government department) which does not have a Chief Scientific Advisor. They have a scientific team that seems to consist of, wait for it, one person (although maybe I’ve got that wrong; there is certainly only one relatively senior scientist in the, admittedly rather small by government standards, department). Yet this is the department responsible for many technical matters. I feel this situation is a legacy of our education system. I look forward to the challenge of working out where STEM matters for them and how they can use advice better. No doubt I will be writing more about science policy matters based on my experience in this role in the future.

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