Tuesday, 18 May 2010

A tale of two science ministers

This year’s Reith Lecturer is the current President of the Royal Society, Professor Martin Rees, who was chosen as part of the BBC's year of science and the Royal Society's 350th anniversary. The lectures are being recorded across the country this month, ready for broadcast in the first week of June. I've been to both the London recordings. More significantly, so has the Science Minister. However, as these recordings were six days apart, the science minister in question has been an entirely different man: first Paul Drayson, now David Willets. I play a bit of compare and contrast over at the Times' science blog.

A thread I didn't pick up on there is the mention (by Rees and repeated by Willets) of the importance of big science to inspire the young. As I've said before, I find statements like this a bit problematic. There is loads of anecdotal evidence to suggest that projects like Apollo inspired people to go into scientific careers. I wouldn't deny that. But, as someone who researches, teaches and generally chats about children and science for a living, I hear almost as many anecdotes to the contrary, or at least citing other inspirations. These anecdotes seem to be articulated slightly less publicly, sometimes even whispered, but they are no less significant.

I'd love someone to look at this properly. To systematically investigate today's children about what inspires them in science and take their interests and disinterests seriously.

Big science projects are exceedingly expensive. That's part of the point. I don't deny their scientific value (or at least I'm not qualified to do so) but in such a period of "tough times" for science funding I'm not sure a loose claim to inspiring the young is enough. It sounds good but, to me, lacks depth. We might even say it's rather pointless, seeing at the new government has kept the old one's division of education and science. Unless Gove wants to fund the LHC? It seems like an all too easy rhetorical appeal to wonder and the assumed good and importance of children. Again, I'm not necessarily denying that science is wonderful or saying that children aren't important (though I do make my students try to think through these ideas, at least as an intellectual exercise), but let's investigate the issue before building policy on it.


  1. If I understand correctly (I was not at the lecture nor I know a lot on the subject) such a strategy would only work for those young people on the edge, i.e. who are debating to go into STEM vs another alternative. If young people are interested in STEM, big science projects are not going to make them any more interested. If young people are not interested in STEM, I doubt they will be persuaded by these massive, complicated projects (I work for one of them coming from a very different field and even I am finding hard to undestand what is going on). So I think that if they are going to make a policy that used big projects to inspire young people, they are actually targeting an even smaller percentage of young people, those who are trying to choose if they want a STEM career or not.