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Last Updated: Monday, 8 September, 2003, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Bac could 'save science'
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff, in Salford

The immense pace of scientific discovery seen over recent years will fall off sharply unless Britain arrests the decline in the numbers of students taking science subjects at A-level.

Williams, BBC
Sir Peter ends his term as BA president at the festival
The warning has come from Sir Peter Williams, president of the British Association (BA) for the Advancement of Science.

He believes it is time there was a much broader sixth-form curriculum with all pupils being required to continue with some form of scientific study beyond GCSEs.

In a speech on Monday to the BA's annual festival he will say such a move would help reconnect an increasingly sceptical public to the benefits of scientific research.

It would also help produce more scientists to maintain the "staggering advances" witnessed in that latter part of the 20th Century, such as in computing and genetics.

"Today, as perhaps never before, the public's support - even consent - is essential if new avenues for scientific research are to be sustainable long term," he will say.

We have to stress the overwhelming benefits science brings, rather than always tending to look to the dark side
Sir Peter Williams
"In its turn, the public - and especially government - have a responsibility to ensure we do not slip back into some scientific equivalent of the 'dark ages'.

"We have to stress the overwhelming benefits science brings, rather than always tending to look to the dark side."

He will cite as an example of this constant emphasis on the potential damage of any innovation the recent furore over nanotechnology and the possibility that the world could be turned into a "grey goo" by tiny robots.

The problem, according, to Sir Peter is ignorance; too many children he feels stop studying science at school too soon and so are ill-equipped to make sensible judgments on many important issues.

It is matter of grave concern he says that fewer and fewer pupils choose to take science A-levels.

"And it's not just a British problem," he says.

"I was in Korea and their science minister said their kids like to go into media studies and the law because science and mathematics were challenging and tough.

Burner, BBC
Burning question: What future for science education
"It's the same in Japan, in the US and Germany."

Sir Peter says there should be a discussion in the UK about whether it is now appropriate to introduce baccalaureate-style education for post-16s.

"That would require as you proceed to the age of 18 or 19 to study your mother tongue, mathematics, a science, another humanities discipline and something optional as well.

"It produces the 18 or 19 year-old who is equipped to deal with, say, the deep ethical issues in the world of science. We at least need to have a debate about this."

The BA's annual festival is hosted this year by Salford University in Greater Manchester.

The public is invited to go to more than 100 talks about cutting-edge developments in science, engineering and technology.

There is also a fringe around the main festival which will concentrate on fun events for all the family.

English Bac gets closer
18 Jun 03  |  Education
Baccalaureate could replace A-levels
21 Jan 03  |  Education
New science course for generalists
07 Jul 03  |  Education


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