When I wrote a blog in August on ‘How our current reward structures have distorted and damaged science’ I mentioned a speech I had heard Colin Blakemore give some years earlier at the British Association, in which he said some trenchant things about the Research Assessment Exercise. I am pleased to say that Colin was able to dig out the text of the speech, and has kindly agreed for me to post it here. It is an important document for two reasons: first, much of what it has to say remains relevant today, and second, it is of considerable historical interest, as it anticipated many subsequent developments. In particular, it highlighted:
1) The wider need for independent scientific advice, and the importance of embedding science at the heart of government;
2) The need for an independent department of science and a seat in Cabinet for the minister;
3) Deficiencies in the evaluation of science, especially the RAE;
4) The failure of British industry to invest adequately in R&D;
5) The need for a new approach to science education.
Sir Walter Bodmer, Lord Mayor, Lord Crickhowell, Sir Donald Walters, Vice-Chancellor, Vice-Presidents, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Members of the University and the British Association.
Hoffwn I ddiolch y Prifysgol am fy wneud yn Gymrawd Anrhydeddus ac am estyn croeso cynnes I mi ac i’r British Association.
In these days of the news flash and the executive summary, it is a rare privilege to have 45 minutes to speak on any subject. But let me start with the obligatory sound bite. This is a tale of two sheep.
The first sheep is pickled in formaldehyde, not for scientific examination but for the amusement of the chattering classes. This sheep is, of course, the product of Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible of the cool Britannia art scene. When he won the Turner Prize in 1994, young Damien confessed: "It's amazing what you can do with an E grade in A-level art, a twisted imagination and a chainsaw". The sculptor, Richard Wentworth, who taught Hirst at Goldsmiths' College, says that he has "fantastic penetrative power". Must be the chain saw, I presume! But Damien certainly has the respect of the guardians of British culture. His split and pickled animals have earned him more than £1 million. And he was voted on to BBC Radio 3's list of 'Centurions' - the 100 people who have made the greatest cultural contribution in the 20th century.
The second sheep in my story lives in a paddock at the Roslin Institute, just outside Edinburgh. It isn't pickled. Like most other female sheep in this country, it had a lamb earlier this year. It isn't in any way unusual, but that's what makes it amazing. Its name, of course, is ‘Dolly’ - the first mammal ever cloned from a somatic cell. Dolly rivals Damien Hirst's sheep in notoriety, but took somewhat more than an E in A-level art and a lot of balls to make. Indeed, Dolly took no balls at all!
Dolly's creators, Dr Ian Wilmut and his colleagues, are not among Radio 3's Centurions.
Just 16 months before the end of a millennium is as good a time as any to reminisce. During the past 100 years, what has Britain given the world? Damien Hirst, of course. And some truly great artists and writers. A modest contribution to classical music; much more to Pop. And a glittering array of dancers, conductors, film makers, designers, choreographers, and actors. But arguably its most significant, enduring and internationally recognized contribution to 20th century culture has been its science.
The list of British achievements, in relation to our size and our expenditure on science, is truly astounding. In molecular and cellular biology, to which Dolly the sheep is just a recent contribution, British scientists have a particularly impressive record. The work of Crick, Watson, Wilkins and Franklin on the structure of DNA stands out, of course. But think too of Krebs, Todd, Sanger, Perutz, Kendrew, Klug, Porter, Brenner, Gurdon. I hesitate even to mention names, for fear of offending the string of British scientists who virtually invented molecular biology, which will change our lives beyond recognition in the 21st century.
In other areas of biology too, Britain has led the world. The mechanism of the nerve impulse, of muscle contraction, of chemical transmission at nerve-muscle junctions and at synapses in the brain, the processing of information in the nervous system: Britons have won Nobel Prizes for laying the foundations of all these fields.
And in the physical sciences too, the record this century is amazing. Twenty-one British winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 23 in chemistry.
We are depressingly fond of saying that Britain has done brilliant basic research but has failed to turn discovery into practical and commercial application. But that is misplaced modesty. Simon Jenkins reminded us earlier this afternoon of Jacob Bronowski’s comment: "The essence of science: ask an impertinent question, and you are on the way to a pertinent answer." British discoveries have, for instance, propelled the spectacular advance of medical science. Think of the practical impact of the pioneering work by Ross on the transmission of malaria, by Gowland Hopkins on vitamins, by Medawar on graft rejection. Think of Doll's painstaking demonstration of the link between smoking and cancer; Vane's discovery of the prostaglandins and Isaacs and Lindenman's of the interferons. Think of the medical importance of JBS Haldane's concept of genetic linkage analysis, Fisher’s foundation of modern statistics, Koehler and Milstein's techniques for the production of monoclonal antibodies. And of course, Fleming, Florey, Chain and Abrahams gave us the miracle of penicillin and cephalosporin. Britain pioneered in vitro fertilization and is now playing a leading role in the genetic analysis of human disease. And the British pharmaceutical industry has made an enormous contribution to drug development: anti-ulcer drugs, new forms of cancer chemotherapy, many successful vaccines, Retrovir (the first marketed treatment for AIDS), and new drugs for epilepsy and rheumatoid arthritis. Now the newspapers tell us that even Viagra itself was invented by a British scientist - who has 5 children!
Radar, the jet engine, television, the chemistry of fermentation, the hologram, supercurrent tunnelling, confocal microscopy, thermionic phenomena, the first programmable computer, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy, the Hovercraft, computer tomography, genetic fingerprinting, X-ray crystallography, and, of course, mammalian cloning. Britain has played a major role in all these scientific and technological developments, whose practical and economic significance is immense.
The creative outpouring of British science in the past century has been a cause of envy and admiration around the world. As Sir Robert May, Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, pointed out, in an article in the journal Science last year, British scientists have outstripped every nation in the world, bar the United States, in their record of major international prizes for science (per head of the population). Yet there is not a single scientist on Radio 3's list of cultural superstars. Indeed, that list of Centurions was deliberately limited to artists, writers and philosophers; and, as far as I know, the BBC has no plans for a comparable tribute to British science.
Science at the head of the agenda
Tony Blair writes in his introduction to the programme of this Festival "With the new millennium ahead, we cannot afford to be complacent and to live on past glories alone." In that case, for what new glories will Britain be known at the end of the next century? Will it still have such a remarkable reputation for science?
If I had been giving this Address two months ago, I could only have said that the future of British science did not look very rosy. The OECD estimated that the UK public spend on R&D fell from 0.73% of Gross Domestic Product in 1981 to 0.43% in 1996. Even by 1994, UK government spending on university research, per capita of the labour force, was roughly one-third of the level in Switzerland and Sweden, half that of the USA, France and Germany. We were 16th out of the 18 nations in the OECD league tables, just behind Iceland. Now, I've got nothing against Iceland: it looks a beautiful place from the aeroplane. But I have to admit that I don't know the name of a single Icelandic scientist! The government's own published analysis shows an almost continuous decline in gross expenditure on R&D (by both government and industry) through the Nineties, to just 1.94% of GDP in 1996 (compared with 2.52% for the United States and 2.77% for Japan).
Earlier this year I attended the centenary annual meeting of our young daughter organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where President Clinton promised to raise the US budget for basic science by $1.2 billion in 1999, the largest increase ever. He also proposed the establishment of a $31 billion “21st Century Research Fund”, with the aim of doubling federal funding for basic research in the coming decade. With bipartisan support there is now talk in Congress of increasing spending by a factor of four! The Japanese government has also recently given a 12% increase in science funding, despite the current economic crisis; or, more accurately, I might say because of the crisis. The Japanese National Institute of Science and Technology Policy has estimated that the doubling of spending by the government on R&D by the year 2000 will result in a 1% increase in the rate of growth of the economy between 2005 and 2010.
Over the last two years of Tory rule, the situation was very generally acknowledged to have become critical, with the Science Budget (the expenditure of the research councils and the Office of Science and Technology itself) actually falling in real terms, despite the broad agreement that the appropriate inflator for the cost of research far exceeds the Retail Price Index. The budget for this year, estimated by Save British Science as the lowest for 27 years, was, of course, inherited by new Labour, which came in with a commitment to maintaining spending limits until the Comprehensive Spending Review.
The scientific community had grown so accustomed to being fobbed off with massaged statistics and promises of jam tomorrow, that there was no great optimism about the result of the Comprehensive Spending Review. The outcome, which we have heard today about from Lord Sainsbury and Sir John Cadogan, is all the sweeter because of that. I use this opportunity to say, on behalf of all my colleagues, how grateful we are to Sir John, to Bob May, to John Battle and to Margaret Becket for the case that they must have presented on behalf of science. We thank the government for this recognition of the value of science and the Wellcome Trust for providing £400 million of the £1.4 billion of additional funding over the coming three years.
In an unprecedented editorial in the journal Science just two weeks ago, Tony Blair described the increases in funding, confirmed his view that "the science base is the absolute bedrock of our economic performance" and asserted that success in science "will help to realize the creative potential of the next generation". For the first time in 20 years, we have clear signs that the government recognizes the central importance of science, not just as the fount of innovation for industrial success, but at the heart of the nation's culture for the 21st century.
How can we make the best use of this new funding? How can we build on this gesture of support from the government, and bring science fully to the service of the nation? In all areas of public life we are being told by the new Labour government to "think the unthinkable". With the hope that they are willing to listen to the "unthinkable", I wish to offer a set of more or less radical proposals for putting science at the heart of our culture for the 21st century.
Establish a Ministry of Science
You can surely judge the significance that government attaches to any particular area of policy by the way in which it is represented in the governmental process.
Until 1992, the administration of the research councils had been firmly rooted in the Department of Education and Science. Immediately after the 1992 election, John Major announced the formation of the Office of Science and Technology, which was placed in the Cabinet Office and overseen by William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who represented science in Cabinet. These changes were in response to pressure from many quarters for greater recognition and a more direct voice for science in government. A year later the government published the first major policy document on science for 20 years, the White Paper entitled “Realising our Potential", which painted a picture of science in the service of industry. It set the scene for the Technology Foresight programme, "to inform government's decisions and priorities". This programme is aimed at identifying areas for marketable development, which the Higher Education Funding Councils and the research councils must take account of in their own funding decisions.
After the White Paper, the Advisory Council on Science and Technology was replaced by the Council for Science and Technology (CST). The role of that Council is not widely understood and it seems to lack the wide-ranging influence within government that it should have. The Dearing Report suggested that the CST should also be scrapped and reinvented. This has not happened, but it has been re-launched with a promise of greater openness.
In the reshuffle that followed the leadership contest in 1995, the OST was summarily, and apparently without consultation, booted out of the Cabinet Office and into the Department of Trade and Industry, where it still lives - a somewhat uncomfortable cuckoo in the nest of business. This unceremonious move, together with the disappearance of the ministerial committee on science and technology policy, symbolized the Tory government's perception of science. Its principle role, perhaps its only worthwhile function, was to deliver practical applications to an industrial sector most of which had a less than impressive record of investing for itself in R&D.
The scientific community welcomes the appointment of Lord Sainsbury as Minister of Science alone, which is another clear signal of the importance the new Labour government attaches to science. However, the fact that the Minister does not report directly to Cabinet and that the OST is located within the walls of the DTI limits their potential to play a really central role in government. Science is the engine of wealth creation, but it is also relevant to the work of virtually every other government department. To health and to education as well as to industry: and also to agriculture, safety, the environment, food and defence; to transport, social services, overseas development, drug control and crime prevention. Yes, and even to culture, media and sport!
The current brief of the OST has been assembled from the residue of the old structure for the management of the research councils, together with a scientific advisory role and a new and flourishing interest in the public understanding of science. These various elements do not appear to be cohesively organized. Concern has been expressed in several quarters about the location of the OST, and, in response, Bob May's trans-departmental group has recently been moved back to the Cabinet Office. This move, welcome in itself, has exacerbated the lack of cohesion in the work of the OST.
One action above all others would confirm this government's commitment to science in the 21 century. I urge Tony Blair to establish an independent Ministry or Department of Science, with a seat in Cabinet for its Minister.
Liberated from the DTI, and with broader powers, the new Ministry could establish a more coherent management structure, extend consultative and advisory links to all the other arms of government, and coordinate the whole of science policy. It could monitor government-funded research, reducing unnecessary duplication of research effort and exercising more uniform quality control.
It could set up mechanisms to integrate the several lines of scientific advice that the government receives through the departments of health, MAFF, the Chief Scientific Advisor, etc; and it could develop new ways of 'taking the pulse' of the scientific community on current scientific issues. Its important role in promoting the public understanding of science should be more closely integrated with the government's own ways of seeking and understanding scientific advice, so that the public can more effectively be kept informed of the basis of the government's thinking on scientific issues.
An independent Ministry of Science would also be better placed, and have more authority, to orchestrate the response of different departments to unexpected and urgent scientific problems. The chaotic response to the BSE crisis provides a bitter example of the present inadequacies of coordination of science policy.
More than £4 billion has already been committed to cattle slaughter and compensation - public money down the abattoir drain. That is almost twice the current annual government expenditure on the whole of science. The BSE crisis has decimated the British beef industry. It has tarnished the image of MAFF. It has badly, perhaps permanently, damaged our reputation overseas for safety controls. It may be decades before the British food industry is trusted again. Although the signs are encouraging, we still cannot be sure that there is not going to be an epidemic of human disease of biblical proportions. No event in modern times has more clearly demanded a rapid, well-planned and integrated response from all the arms of scientific funding and research, but singularly failed to receive it. A Ministry of Science with a coordinating role might - just might - have prevented the worst of this tragedy.
We must learn lessons from the BSE saga, still by no means over, as we see from today’s publicity about the possibility of the infection of sheep. We should recognize how widespread the ramifications of health and safety issues can be, spanning the work of many government departments. We must accept the inadequacies of the present ill-coordinated systems for advising government, for making public and implementing advice, and for commissioning and funding high-priority research.
I applaud the government for responding to the call for an independent Inquiry into BSE, and the open and efficient manner in which Sir Nicholas Phillips is conducting it. The findings of that Inquiry must be used to inform the new Food Standards Agency, which could be closely linked with the new Ministry of Science.
Improving scientific advice
The quality and independence of the scientific advice given to the UK government, through the Chief Scientific Advisor and other Departmental Chief Scientists, is high in comparison with many other countries. However, in the light of failings revealed by the BSE affair, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the scientific advisory system: this is, then, an appropriate time to speculate on how advice might be better delivered.
In a recent article, Sir Richard Southwood, reflecting on the BSE disaster and the inadequate way in which the recommendations of his committee were treated, concluded:
"Within government the Chief Scientist could have a role to follow through the interpretation of independent scientific advice and to monitor the implementation of recommendations...He (or she) could audit a 'follow-up'".
The pressing issues of the modern world, most of which have a scientific dimension, are handled by government ministers and officials, few of whom have had a formal scientific training. Never has the need for good scientific advice been greater; and the need is bound to increase. In a paper published last year, Bob May himself was also critical of the present system for collecting and assessing factual evidence, and for monitoring the way in which government uses the advice. A much more comprehensive, transparent and accountable system is needed for coordinating the advisory process. Managing such a system would be a central task for the new Ministry of Science.
I am concerned about the fact that, with the exception of situations in which special advisory committees are established (such as the Southwood Committee and the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee), there is no explicit mechanism laid down for the government's advisers to consult broader opinion within the scientific community, on which to base their judgement, which is thus protected from the normal process of scientific challenge. Some government departments do have access to other sources of scientific advice, through their own research establishments, but it may often be difficult for government employees to be utterly dispassionate in their advice. Also, the speed and unpredictability of scientific progress make it impossible for such units always to give a properly balanced view.
What is needed is a more extensive system of consultation, which I believe that the scientific community will readily take on as part of its responsibility to society. Continuing issues, such as climate change, energy supply and environmental protection, may deserve permanent standing committees of experts. For more immediate issues, like BSE, transport policy and drought management, ad hoc committees of experts could be assembled, and disbanded when their task is complete. The expertise of professional scientific societies and the Royal Society should be harnessed in the service of government advice.
Finally, in the spirit of openness that this government has espoused, the nature of advice and the way in which it is used should be made public, except in rare cases of risk to national security.
The lack of scientific understanding among many ministers and civil servants may currently inhibit them from seeking, revealing or using scientific advice. All government departments should be compelled to refer significant policy issues to the Ministry of Science, even if they do not realise that they have a scientific dimension. The nature of any scientific advice should be disclosed to other government departments, as well as to the media, as background to ministerial statements. This might be the antidote to the kind of political machoism that provides instant, firm answers to every question - something that scientists themselves rarely do. The BSE crisis was punctuated with public assurances from ministers about the lack of risk that must have made their advisers wince.
Greater transparency in the advisory process will help to reduce oversimplification and misunderstanding. And it will mean that scientists no longer have to take the blame for inadequate responses to advice. Openness would also benefit the public understanding of science itself, since it would reveal the nature of experiments, scientific disagreement, and the concepts of risk and probability, in a context immediately relevant to current political issues.
I hope that the government will ask the British Association to play a part in promoting the spirit of openness, particularly by using the annual Festival to air subjects of topical interest and to give the public and the media the opportunity to monitor the advisory process at work.
Science and long-term strategy
Inevitably, the business of government is often reactive rather than strategic. An independent Ministry of Science should be given the resources and the links with other departments to help develop long-term strategies in areas for which science is relevant, including in the European and international arenas.
I can immediately suggest one urgent topic for such strategic analysis. It is the demographic time-bomb of the world's ageing population, which is, in my opinion, still not being taken sufficiently seriously. Average life expectancy in Britain has increased by a staggering 3 months for every year of this century! Of course, much of this is accounted for by a disproportionate decrease in infant mortality, but there has also been a very real increase in the average duration of adult life. By the middle of the next century, more than one in ten of the population of Britain will be over 75. Our children's children will expect to live to 100. We must, as a nation, plan now for a massive unbalancing of society, in which fewer and fewer young adults are supporting more and more of the retired. This remarkable demographic trend is testimony to the success of modern medicine in keeping most of the body going. We might imagine that, as people become more confident of a long and healthy life, many will want to retire later (a trend that is already apparent in the United States). Graduated retirement programmes, in which workload is scaled down with age, rather than terminating brutally, might not only make sense economically but also prevent some of the emotional crises that often follow abrupt retirement.
But the quality of life, as well as the ability of the elderly to continue to work effectively and to contribute in other ways to society, are so often compromised by diseases and disorders of the ageing brain and nervous system - the one organ system in the body that cannot significantly replace or repair itself. Any strategic plan for the problem of the ageing population must give the highest priority to research on the human brain, including the devastating diseases that can transform the Third Age into misery - stroke, motor neuron disease, CJD, Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease.
Value for money from civil science
How did Britain sustain such a remarkable record in research during this century, and especially in the three decades following the Second World War? I believe that there are two main reasons.
The first was the favourable environment for creative freedom in British universities. The relatively generous student:staff ratio and the minimal bureaucratic burden provided an opportunity for university staff to pursue their research, free from the constraints of external direction or ear-marked funding. Job satisfaction was high, despite low salaries, and the level of productivity in research was unrivalled in any other university system except the United States.
The second reason for the success of British university research was the brilliantly simple dual-support system. The government funded university research in two ways. Core support, channelled through the old University Grants Committee - now through the Higher Education Funding Councils - and external grants to provide supplementary funding for projects requiring special equipment, additional help or expensive running costs.
During the past twenty years, British university science has suffered not only declining research funding but also a series of upheavals. I have already mentioned the peregrinations of the OST, the reorganization of the research councils and the impact of Foresight. But we have also seen the transfiguration of the Polytechnics into full universities without additional research funding, the serious erosion of the dual support system, the introduction of industrial-style appraisal for academic staff, a huge increase in paper-shuffling bureaucracy, a doubling of student:staff ratios, a halving of resources per student, and, of course, the attempt to monitor research output through the Research Assessment Exercises.
Many of these changes were offerings on the Thatcherite altar of Accountability. These were implemented by the academic community with considerable misgivings and not a little ridicule, but in the hope that if we cow-towed one more time, the God of Accountability would be appeased. The net effect of many of these changes has been to demoralize and demotivate UK researchers, and to make research in UK universities less efficient rather than more.
In the context of its new commitment to science, I urge the government to conduct a wider review of the management and appraisal of UK science.
Much has been written about the pros and cons of the dual-support system. In the quest for selectivity, some have argued for a complete shift to a US-style system, with no direct institutional funding by federal government, but substantial overheads on external grants, at a rate negotiated directly between the funding agency and the university. But many of the great American research universities are private, with huge endowments; many enjoy lavish financial support from their alumni and from philanthropic foundations. In the less wealthy US universities, the security of workshop staff, secretaries, even the janitor, is determined by the outcome of individual grant applications.
Over three years, from 1992, a substantial fraction of the Funding Councils' research budget was shifted to the research councils - the so-called DR shift. The intention was to pass more of the core support to the most productive departments. However, the money was removed from universities according to a strict formula, based on existing grant income, but was not fully returned in overheads and new categories of direct funding when grants were renewed. Research council committees that had been starved of funds for so long refused to accept many of the requests for additional direct funding (contributions to the salaries of departmental technicians, etc). Consequently, many departments, my own included, were driven into serious deficit and were forced to cut central facilities savagely, to the detriment of research.
The payment of automatic grant overheads on salaries alone has biased support in favour of labour-intensive areas of research and has encouraged researchers to overload applications with salaries rather than consumable costs. Overheads should be paid on consumables as well as salaries.
My own view, in line with that of the Dearing Report, is that we must preserve the dual support system. It is gratifying to learn, then, that the Comprehensive Spending Review increased the Research element of the HEFCs’ budget by £300 million over the coming three years, which roughly preserves the ratio of funding through the two arms of the dual support system.
1986 was the height of the Thatcher government's crusade for accountability. The great sword of the British government was raised against the evil enemy of dead wood. That was the year of the first full-scale assessment of the quality of research in UK universities, generating grades that were used to apportion the direct element of the dual support system. The subsequent series of Research Assessment Exercises has certainly flushed out complacency and focused attention on the importance of supporting the best of British research. However, the time has come to question the continuing value of RAEs, as now conducted.
The emphasis of RAEs on numerical performance indicators has fostered tactics within universities that have damaged British science. The relentless pressure to publish more has imposed a short-term perspective that discourages risky or long projects: yet these are the kinds of research that are most likely to be truly innovative. Universities are tempted to run their recruitment programmes like those of football clubs, head-hunting for productive research groups to boost performance rather than as part of a genuine strategic plan. Not that mobility and competition between universities are a bad thing, but the RAEs have distorted the sensible planning of research.
But my main criticism of RAEs concerns their cost-effectiveness. The HEFCs estimated that the 1992 RAE cost them £4 million. The cost of each RAE to the universities, especially in the time of academics and administrators, is enormously greater. After the four RAEs that have already taken place, the changes in ranking that now occur from Exercise to Exercise are generally small in magnitude and in number. In other words, huge effort and cost are being invested to discover less and less information.
I believe that we should abandon full-blown Research Assessment Exercises and concentrate on methods for discovering changes in ranking. Perhaps departments that believe that their standing has improved should be allowed to submit evidence, with a penalty for unsuccessful applications. To detect decreasing performance, an initial minimal trawl of data from all departments, say every five years, could be used to direct further analysis on departments identified as possibly being in decline.
Rather than concentrating only on rewarding the strong, I think that it is very important to have mechanisms to enable up-and-coming departments, especially in the new universities, to graduate into the research funding league. The Dearing Report proposed the allocation of 'scholarship' allowances to all members of permanent staff in lower graded departments, to encourage them to establish collaborations with other institutions and hence to develop their own research potential. This is a good idea, but the amount proposed for these allowances, £500 per annum, is inadequate to support effective collaboration. It would be good if more could be made available to unclassified departments that can demonstrate effective mechanisms for distributing the funds to the most promising members of staff.
I also want to make a point about that element of the additional money for the science budget that has been called the 'Infrastructure Fund'. This £600 million, half provided by the Wellcome Trust, is the key to renovating the fabric and facilities of British laboratories. The mechanisms for its allocation, yet to be announced, are crucial. I hope that most if not all of this money will be directed to the universities rather than other research institutions, which have been relatively protected from deterioration and obsolescence. I hope that universities will be given sufficient time to prepare well-considered applications, and that these will be judged by proper peer review. I also hope that there will be no predetermined allocation according to subject (except for whatever allowance to the biosciences is necessarily dictated by the Wellcome Trust's statutes). This is an opportunity to develop areas of science of strategic importance, not just to confirm the status quo.
A fresh look at science education
One of the most important functions of the new Ministry of Science, in cooperation with the Department of Education and Employment, would be to help to shape the future of science education, from primary school to the furthest reaches of lifelong learning.
In the past 30 years, school education, below Sixth Form level, has gone through a series of radical changes, sometimes looking more like a battle between the dogmas of educational fashion and of political philosophy than rational policy. To my mind, this partly reflects the problem of conducting educational research, since it is difficult if not ethically unacceptable to carry out real experiments. And the outcome of any reform is very hard to assess, partly because of the protracted time-scale of education but mainly because there are so many uncontrollable additional variables.
We know that the human brain passes through periods of particular sensitivity to certain kinds of learning - learning to walk, to remember faces, to talk, to read, to interact socially, etc. In principle, it should be possible to design an educational system that is matched to the period of sensitivity for each kind of learning task. I hesitate to make dogmatic statements in a field where opinion tends to triumph over fact, but I think that we know almost nothing about the optimal time and method for teaching, say, mathematics, history or science. However, we do know that, before the age of about 8 years, second languages are learned relatively effortlessly by most children, exploiting the natural sensitivity for language acquisition. Yet the present curriculum in this country largely delays foreign language teaching until secondary school. This partly explains why the British (but not the Welsh, of course) are so bad at foreign languages. Can we be sure that this penalty is outweighed by any advantage in concentrating on the formal teaching of mathematics, science, history, etc, in primary school?
If we cannot do proper experiments in education, we can at least look at experience elsewhere. Such comparisons do not support the new policy of concentrating on formal teaching and testing of the 3 Rs in the very first years of primary school. In some countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, which do not start formal instruction until the age of six or seven, school leavers actually perform better in tests of the 3 Rs than British children do. I applaud the efforts of the government to increase access to primary education from the age of four, which will help mothers, especially single parents, to return to work. But I believe that it would be more efficient for such young children to concentrate on 'learning to learn' and on developing group cooperation in problem solving. Britain has very high rates of teenage pregnancy and youth crime, as well as many other signs of social malaise among young people. Perhaps an emphasis on social skills in the early years of school would do more to reverse these problems than the 3 Rs.
As someone who went to school through the iniquitous period of the 11-plus, I was astonished by the recent proposal to test 4-year-olds in reading, writing and maths, even before entry to primary school, and to use these tests to stream the children. Such skills at that age could only have come from coaching at home. This testing will directly disadvantage children from less supportive home backgrounds.
But the greatest need for radical thinking is in the area of higher and further education, from Sixth Form on. The rapid increase in the number of young people moving on to higher education over the last 10 years is a great achievement, moving Britain more into line with other developed countries. But we are still working within a framework for higher education designed in the 1940s. Just three specialized subjects at A-level; the 3-year Honours degree course; and, until this year, free university fees for all. This structure worked well enough in 1961, when I left school, because only 5% of school leavers went to university. But it is under severe strain now that more than 30% do so. The introduction of the student contribution to fees is only patching up the problem of financing higher education. But because of it, even more undergraduates will live in abject poverty and will incur even larger debts. And an increasing fraction of students are not completing the course of their initial choice.
There is a growing consensus that the traditional Sixth form curriculum is too narrow, particularly now that many schools are simply unable to maintain extracurricular activities. I hope that the government will look again at the introduction of a broader curriculum, as in other European countries, with, say 3 major and 2 minor subjects, and with every Sixth former studying both arts and science in some form.
Of course, there will be knock-on effects at university level, with a need for more foundation teaching to compensate for the broadening of teaching in the Sixth Form. This will make it difficult to reach a full Honours degree level in only 3 years, and I believe that it will be necessary to move to four years for such qualifications. If this applied to every student, it would obviously put a huge additional strain on university staff and facilities, as well as on the pockets of students and their families. So, I think that we should look seriously at the introduction of a two-year Ordinary degree course, aimed at providing a well-rounded advanced education or preparation for subsequent vocational training.
Also, many young (and not so young) people would be able to benefit more from university education, and to finance themselves more easily, if course structures were more flexible, as in the United States. The trend towards teaching in modules is a good thing (as long as we can resist examining entirely by multiple choice questions). The introduction of American-style 'credits' for examinations passed, which can be accumulated and even transferred to another university, would enable students to take time off for temporary work.
Finally, it is worth pointing out an odd paradox in science education in this country, and a lesson that emerges from it. It is clear that traditional single science subjects have not shared in the huge general expansion in higher education. The welcome increase in the numbers taking science at GCSE is not feeding through to A-level choices. While the fraction of post 16-year-olds taking A-levels has tripled since 1962, the proportion taking combinations of Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Maths has actually decreased, especially in the State sector. There has been an increase in those taking mixtures of arts and sciences - a kind of do-it-yourself Baccalaureate - but only one in five of those students go on to read science-based courses at university.
Consequently, the total numbers of undergraduates reading only science subjects or maths has stayed remarkably constant, while the overall numbers have rocketed up. Just last year there was a further 2.8% fall in the number of applications to read physics. There has been an increase in Biology, and also in combined courses that include an element of science (some of them pretty arbitrary combinations). But it is clear that the huge increase in university entrance has not led to a proportionate rise in the number of science graduates, as Simon Jenkins told us this afternoon.
Should this worry us? In fact, Britain's graduate output in the sciences is not out of line with that of our major industrial competitors. Remarkably, Britain graduates relatively more people in the natural sciences, maths, computing, and even engineering than France, Japan or the United States.
The one comparison on which Britain falls down miserably is in the proportion of science graduates who secure employment as science professionals. While the fraction of the labour force employed in science and engineering R&D has risen steadily since the 1970s in Germany, Japan, France and the USA, in the UK it has actually fallen. The reasons are fairly obvious. Scientists and engineers are underpaid, compared with other professionals, far below the average for accountants and managers. And there are just not enough good jobs for scientists.
Britain is a manufacturing nation with limited natural resources: our very survival depends on our powers of invention. Yet, Britain was alone among major OECD nations in reducing its level of investment in R&D, as a percentage of GDP, since 1981. Both industry and government were guilty of this neglect. With the notable exception of the highly successful pharmaceutical, aerospace and petrochemical industries, the level of investment of British industry is between 0.5 and 1% lower than that of our main competitors - between £3 billion and £7 billion less, overall, per annum! This under-investment in innovation, combined with the millstone of the over-valued pound, has put British industry at a terrible disadvantage in international trade. Hardly surprising then that the trade gap is yawning wider than ever - £5.7 billion in the red for the first half of this year.
A new Ministry of Science, working with the DTI, should generate radical ideas to stimulate British industry to invest more in R&D, and to employ more science graduates. Why not much better tax incentives for R&D; compulsory detailed reporting of R&D expenditure in annual reports; new schemes to encourage companies to sponsor undergraduates and research students, and to employ them for periods between modular courses?
There is so much to do if this government is truly to put science where it belongs, at the head of the agenda for the next century.
Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, opens his recent book, Creative Britain, with the following words:
"This book is about creativity. It is about the cultural ferment and imaginative heights to which creativity leads, the enormous impact that both creativity and culture have on society and the growing importance to the modern economy of Britain of all those activities and industries that spring from the creative impulse."
But the word ‘science’ appears on only two pages of Chris Smith's book - in a transcript of a brief speech that he made for the opening of an exhibition on design. As I read the book, I realised that, for most people in this country, the word ‘culture’ means something that is discussed on BBC2 after Newsnight. And that doesn't include science.
The British Association’s Festival of Science for the year 2000 will take its place in a month-long celebration of creativity in the South Kensington area, with the overall theme of “One Culture, not Two”. It's a wonderful idea to acclaim all the creative skills of Britain for the millennium, but, frankly, I am not among those who see science and the arts as essentially part of a single process of discovery.
Science is about unlocking the truth of Nature. Artistic creativity is of a different kind, aimed at stamping the identity of the creative person indelibly on the work of art. The kind of 'experiments' that artists do, like Damien Hirst's sheep, are attempts to find novel ways of engaging our senses and our cognitive processes, probing and testing the instinctive reactions of the human mind. As the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, wrote: "An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world".
I suspect that even more pictures of Dolly have appeared in the press than of Damien's sheep, and her image has conjured up all sorts of emotions - surprise, wonder, alarm, even fear. But those reactions were not the aim of the research. The motivation of Ian Wilmut and his colleagues was to test a particular hypothesis - about the capacity of the nucleus of a differentiated cell to initiate and orchestrate the entire process of mammalian development. And the creative value of the work is not its particular product, pretty though Dolly is: it is the principle that she reveals and the potential for application of that principle in a multitude of ways.
We judge the creative quality of art by it uniqueness, and it is devalued by reproduction; but we judge scientific creativity by the generality of its implications: reproducibility is the sine qua non of good science.
Informing the public
Finally a word about the public understanding of science, a cause to which the OST is strongly committed and for which this Festival is a centrepiece. It is now 15 years since our Chairman, Sir Walter Bodmer, produced his report, which led to the establishment of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. COPUS has raised the profile and the respectability of the public communication of science, especially by professional scientists. But we still have a long way to go. A flippant way of putting it is that, ten years ago, the British public didn't know much about science and didn't care: now, they know a little more but care a great deal. I think that the public concerns about genetically modified organisms, about food safety, about cloning, and even about the use of animals in research are a healthy sign of public engagement in national affairs, so much lacking in other areas of British life. But many of the concerns and suspicions about science are based on a lack of understanding. It is the task of the scientific community, the scientific media and, dare I say it, the new Ministry of Science, to answer the public's concerns, to provide them with the knowledge on which to make valid judgements, and to respect the fact that the people are the ultimate arbiters of how science can best serve this country in the 21st century.