Science in the UK is going the same way as football, argues Dr Mark Miodownik. Britain has some of the best universities in the world, employing some of the most sublime talent, much of it foreign. He bemoans the lack of home-grown talent and the culture which just doesn't seem to value science in the same way it used to be.
For club... if not country
At some point in the future, we may yet live like gods, with plentiful food, luxury, the ability to fly, good health and control over the weather.
Some worry about this, saying that it will spell the end for science and engineering, because everyone will be too busy living long and happy lives to bother exploring the wonders of the Universe and creating the very technology responsible for our god-like lifestyles.
Some even claim that this has already happened.
It's undoubtedly true that fewer and fewer UK students love science and engineering enough to want to pursue it as a career.
As yet, this hasn't adversely affected UK academic science too much, which is still second only to the US in reputation and achievements, because we have sucked in talent from the rest of the world.
UK research is fast becoming like football's Premiership, which is the best league in the world precisely because its pursuit of excellence attracts global talent.
In contrast, UK companies routinely complain they can't get enough good science and engineering graduates but this can only be because either they are not willing to employ overseas candidates (many of whom are trained at UK universities) or they are unwilling to pay the going rate for a top class brain.
A commitment to evidence-based scientific argument is based on a love of rationality: it's an emotional response to the laws of the Universe
The finance sector has no such hesitations, and, as a result, sucks up many of the brightest UK science and engineering graduates.
The current school system doesn't help. If you give up on maths and science at 16 then there is no way back for you; your options are curtailed as far as a career in science goes.
A Baccalaureate system in which everyone continues with the set of subjects that lie at the core of our culture not only benefits the arts and humanities students by developing quantitative skills, but also benefits scientists by giving them a more rounded education; which, let's face it, is badly needed.
The US does this, most of Europe does this.
If the UK government really wants an electorate more informed about the scientific issues that affect our society, and willing to take up scientific and engineering careers, this is the clear way forward.
The education system requires young people to make choices early
Having said that, I don't think that government can do much about the heart of the issue, which is how our society values science.
A commitment to evidence-based scientific argument is based on a love of rationality: it's an emotional response to the laws of the Universe.
Science is like poetry in this respect: it is an expression of something sublime.
Engineering likewise is an expression of human emotions and passions - cars, hip replacements and even washing machines are as much expressions of our soul as paintings, literature and music.
If we are to change the cultural climate for these activities in the UK, I'm afraid it's time for some emotional expression by scientists and engineers involved to inspire the next generation.
Not one of our talents I know, but that's the price of living like gods.
Dr Mark Miodownik is head of the Materials Research Group in the Division of Engineering at King's College, London. Mark is a research scientist who also trains young scientists and engineers. You can hear Mark in his own words in this week's Radio 4 Choice podcast.
Do you agree with Mark Miodownik? Does it really matter that schools are no longer producing many scientists if UK universities can continue to recruit the best overseas? Is it time to change secondary education to the more broader format offered by a Baccalaureate-type system?
I disagree that a broader education until the age of 18 will benefit the sciences or any other subject. I think that children should be educated in the broad sense until 16 and then chose what interests them. I myself am going to study Physics at Oxford University next year and doubt that I would have been able to even apply for a place if I were forced to study the arts, as whilst I'm interested in these subjects I am not very good at them. The baccalaureate system encourages all-rounders however the people who excel in any one field are very rarely all-rounders, I point to Stephen Hawking and Einstein as examples. The current British education system encourages excellence in a particular field, which I think is of the utmost importance.
Gavin Fourie, Hartlepool
While the analogy with the English football league about building a world class scientific community using imported talent is partly valid, I think Dr Miodownik is missing a big point in that if you go to Australia, the USA, South Africa, indeed almost anywhere in the world, you will find a substantial number of British trained (indeed British born) scientists. In contrast, British footballers rarely play abroad.
Also is he talking specifically about the English school system? If so, as a scientist, he should know to be more precise.
Roger, Stellenbosch, South Africa
The same thing is happening here in the US. Our companies bemoan that lack of US talent but beg our government to allow immigrants to replace US citizens at our technical jobs at lower wages. People are responding to the economic decisions of our leaders and do not want to spend the time and energy of a technical education. I am an engineer and my job was shipped overseas. My son is a truck driver and he says that his job cannot be shipped overseas which is a very logical and rational argument.
The engineering manager I worked for back in the 1970s in California recognized this same overall trend in US engineering and science graduation rates. After the end of the Apollo moom program, US students increasingly displayed little to no interest in math and science. So, positions in graduate degree programs now largely go to foreign students rather than US citizens.
My overall take on this is that it is a consequence of the decline of Western civilization as described by Oswald Spengler eight decades ago. We have largely lost our will to go forward as an organized mass of humanity, and what remains is increasingly sapped away year by year. Where do you get the next Michaelangelo when your greatest recent painter is Andy Warhol?
Bill Schultz, Kansas City, USA
There is a simple question that only one has to ask. Who helps society more, a banker, or an engineer/scientist? Secondly, who gets paid more? And third, does it make sense? Changing the education system is not the way to go about it, changing peoples perception is.
Andrew Hart, San Francisco, USA
As a recently employed PhD student, I feel it is only a matter of time before the developing China overtakes the UK in terms of science reputation. They are prepared to pump loads of money into improving their science while the UK is making various projects justify themselves due to funding cuts. Chinas science program is also not hindered by the Catholic church which has the potential to stop groundbreaking research being allowed in the UK through bullying members of parliament.
A ban on cutting edge research and the cuts in funding will only drive talent and investment overseas and Britain will quickly lose its world class science reputation.
Gordon Smith, Glasgow
The amounts of money squandered on half-baked projects like the Millennium Dome and opera houses should be used for science. And why we are giving foreign aid - especially to countries like India (a nuclear bomb and ICBM manufacturer) is beyond me.
Money going to science is an investment, money to arts is waste.
Lottery money should go to the NHS and science, and to nothing else.
Brian Clarke, Millisle, Co. Down
"UK companies routinely complain they can't get enough good science and engineering graduates" because by "good" they don't just mean with good grades, they mean with good experience. And how does one get that? From India, it seems.
The only technology companies willing to employ fresh graduates at all are the big internationals. Trying to find entry-level scientific work locally is an exercise in futility, and not for a lack of either employers or degrees.
This is so true and yes, we will become a society of science developed product users, not developers.
Personally, I blame the BBC and other media who continuly give the impression science and maths seem difficult and boring and anyone who says different is in need of 'a life'!
I'm just glad it wasn't always like that and we had programmes like 'Think of a Number!'
I am currently studying Mechanical Enginnering at Strathclyde University and I believe that the problem cannot be solved simply by changing to the Baccalaureate system. It may be a neccesary step but the underlying matter is the growing lack of interest in science, and, a high drop out rate. Maybe it is time to consider revising HND, HNC, and apprenticeship structures to allow smaller British engineering companies to recruit skilled workers more effectively, as the "brain" goes to the major firms and research sectors.
The problem in Britain is the lack of a high standard high school science education. If the science classes are composed of memorisation rather than understanding how can people be expected to feel enthusiastic?
Sebastian Meznaric, London
I agree with the above comments by Mark Miodownik above.
The majority of people in Britain, including myself, have so many interests and opportunities outside of sudying that many will find it hard to concentrate on learning something like engineering unless they develop an interest and understanding at a young age at school.
Callum Buchan, Edinburgh, Scotland
"more broader"? It's not just Science education that Britain has neglected.
Today I read that Astronomy has to 'make a case' for funding. The case is simply that unless we do fundamental science, with no expectation of an attributable return on investment, we consign ourselves to being a slave nation. Real, curiosity-driven Science is where the next-but-one generation's jobs will come from...but in entirely unpredictable ways.
pr andrews, crieff, scotland
After four years as a scientist my salary was still lower than that of a trainee accountant on their first day of the job. A scientist in academia would earn far less. Why should any bright graduate choose science as a career? Those who are prepared to put up with the long hours and low pay are welcome to it, wherever they come from. Given the competition for jobs and fellowships there is hardly a shortage of candidates.
As a scientist who has worked in science and its application for over 40 years I still find science and the world around me fascinating. However, when working with young scientists I find that there is less and less opportunity for them to learn to find out things for themselves. In addition the pseudo-market driven approach to higher education means that there are many courses that sound attractive but do not offer a good grounding in the fundamentals of science. There is also a problem of a great deal of poor quality academic research driven by the current approach of judging quantity of publications rather than quality of work. Too much shallow research that is easy rather than challenging is a severe threat to science. We also need to communicate the results and value of our work to society (including the media) much better. After all they pay for the scientists one way or another. That also means less arrogance and more humility in scientists.
John Fawell, High Wycombe
Right on, Brother!
The British undergrad scientists coming through my lab at the moment seem few and far between, and those that arrive seem uninterested in the science, and are doing it just to get a science degree. Personally, I don't care if I work with UK scientists or overseas ones, but for the UK, it would be better if we had homegrown talent - and the Baccalaureate system seems a good place to start.
It wouldn't hurt if there was more money in science to keep the good graduates away from the city...
Dr David C Briggs, Nantwich UK.
I believe that Mark is correct in a lot of his argument, however there is also an underlying question as to why the UK society does not value engineering and science as careers. By training I am an engineer with a degree in engineering from Sheffield. I have two sons who are now embarking on their own careers. Neither of which is in engineering. Why? The reasons are quite simple. We left the UK in 1984 to seek a better life overseas, as engineering in the UK did not offer much. My sons realise this and they have seen the hours, efforts and travel required to attain a good standard of living, whilst other occupations have less stress and shorter working hours with more time spent at home with family. They both made a concious decision NOT to take engineering as a career. I know from many colleagues both in the UK and working as expats, that this is the same with their families. It is not schools and universities that have to be examined, it is the industries themselv!
Richard Walls, Dubai
I was persistent so I got a degree in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Look at what companies are paying in the job adverts (if you can find any) and you'll see a science degree today either gets you locked into acadaemia or paid less than most people you went to school with. I'm working in China and loving it, but I'm the exception. Science is treated with suspicion and not valued. Who do people think created all the ills of today? Scientists. Who do they think is going to solve them? Tree-hugging arts graduates. Small wonder people don't want to throw their lives away on something which is hard and undervalued.
Bob Connell, Shanghai
There are reports all the time in the US about the same thing - fewer and fewer students taking to math and science. Seeing this article from the UK makes me wonder if both countries are either seeing things differently from 20 years ago (and things aren't really that different) or else that this phenomenon is another result of being able to live our 'god-like' lives. Similar to the rise of obesity, the fall of math and science may be another symptom of a rich society.
Andrea, Vermont, US
As a structural engineering student, I sincerely hope engineering is going the same way as football in terms of salary as well! the financial sector is far too attractive a solution for graduates. Although I am British, I was educated using the European Baccalaureate and fully support the "more rounded" style.
Christian Smallwood, Edinburgh
I'm afraid the picture painted by Dr. Miodownik is glaringly valid. The UK is very poor at selling scince and engineering achievements: the press prefer to pour scorn on failed programmes rather than heap praise on success and focus on puerile 'psuedo-reality' than on how we can affect our actual reality. The UK needs to re-adopt the technocratic approach that we used to have in our influential hey-day. This approach, championed by all the leading scientific nations, promotes development of the economy and national prestige through science and engineering prowess, thereby making it more attractive to students, businesses and researchers alike. Until we see that change, we shall remain a slumbering scientific backwater.
Mark puts his finger on the issue when he says "UK companies complain they can't get enough good science graduates but this can only be because ... they are unwilling to pay the going rate for a top class brain". It is a classic market failure - companies get used to a cheap commodity, but when the competition for that commodity rises they pig-headedly refuse to buy (even though it harms their business). Instead you get the Institute of Physics trying to advertise and bribe folk into an uncertain and poorly-paying career. Truth is, if the financial sector pays more then this is a strong signal to 18 year-olds that finance is where the UK can make best use of them!
Peter Cumpson, Newcastle, UK
With the advent of so-called 'soft subjects', science and maths are inevitably becoming less popular in schools. Schools will pressure students into taking subjects they know they will do well in (like general studies) for the sake of their league tables.
Despite the fact that many universities and institutions run schemes to get people into science, they are also sending out mixed messages by closing their science (like physics) departments down. What we need is a collaborative and well thought-out way of showing what science can offer as a career to young people.
Harriet Dickinson, Oxford UK
A broader system suits generalists and those who haven't decided what to specialise in. A less-broad system is good for those who want to specialise early, or have big problems with a/some component(s ) of a broader system. An ideal system would allow for both.
Andy, Hong Kong
At the heart of this issue is the government. Most MPs seem to be ignorant of the value of science and its importance to the country. The current round of cuts being forced on the Science Community by the Science & Technology Facilities Council is a very worrying example; the Government stands idly by having seemingly washed their hands of the whole business. I believe a Baccalaureate-type system would make it easier for students to study science and the Government can do much more than it currently does to promote science as a career to young people.
Tim, March, Cambs
I agree with him. I got my Phd in genetics at cambridge and, although i love science, it's just not funded well enough in the UK. The salaries for post-doctoral researchers are pathetic as are the contracts. Thus, I moved to the usa. I feel kind of guilty because I never paid a penny for my education and now i'm paying tax to uncle sam. That said, it's typical of the myopic UK governments to under-invest.
Scott, USA St Louis
These words unfortunately have the ring of truth. As a scientist, I am only too aware of working conditions that most people would spurn (long hours, low pay and little to no career prospects). However, I am also aware of hoe hugely rewarding the job is as well. I am also aware of just how poor non-scientists knwoledge of science is, leading to a deep, generalised suspicion of scientists, rather than acceptance of the myriad benefits that science has brought to our society. The suspicion itself is enough to put anyone off a career in science.
Our society doesn't value engineering and science so there is no surprise young people will look somewhere else. At the moment engineers are some sort of second class professions.
And I agree that our children have got it all too easy, they are not going to put in the effort required by science education.
Adrian Just, Cambridge, UK
Commodities as 'expressions of our soul' is a disturbing comment. I would not like to be defined by my washing machine or the bus I have to catch everyday due to congested roads and as for science trying to explain the sublime well doesn't that kill the concept of sublime?
I absolutely agree, and we should definitely adopt the Baccalaureate system asap. Science and its processes are the basis of everything - the paint for art, the paper for books, the food we buy in supermarkets, tv, music, the buildings we live and work in - even our dreams. The sooner individuals are aware of and/or understand this complexity on a macro and micro level, the better for society and the future of humanity.
Nici Lilley, Oxford, UK
Its not enough to love science. I am about to finish a PhD in microbiology from a leading UK university. The cost of living in this country is prohibitively high. Science is poorly paid, and job insecurity is high. If I stay in research, it will involve a move. Reluctantly it will be to the USA
The statement that there's no way into science for people who leave school at 16 just isn't accurate. I left at 16 and started a university run foundation year at 21, I'm currently in the first year of my PhD!!!
Isn't it wonderful ? Soon the British will be an under-class of under-educated peons living off the dole while the best jobs go the the highly educated foreigners !! Thank God, my kids were given a good scientific grounding !!
I've got a PhD, a MSc and a BSc 1st... and now I'm going into business. Why am I not in science? Because the security is poor, the money is (relatively) poor and I need to support a family. What would change things? For me, if the government supported its scientists, instead of shutting down research institutues all other the place, and cutting back on all science budgets except biotech. Biotech is important, but it is not the Holy Grail the government seem to think it is.
Dave Frearson, Buckinghamshire
I think the problem lies not in the interest in science, but in the pay for doing science. I know a lot of bright people who have msc in science and several years experience working in demanding fields such as forensics and medical science who are leaving or have left their jobs as more mundane jobs pay a lot more money for less stress and pressure.Others are leaving for the USA and Canada where the pay is often twice as high for a similar job role.
Continuing science education is vital but, at the same time, perhaps it is the UK post-war UK system of post-16 specialization that has been one important factor in UK science success?
Dr John Horsfall, KL, Malaysia
It is very important for the government to take heed of points like these. Thankfully our "god-like" lifestyle has inspired me to maintain a love for science right up to my graduation this May and beyond into research in this country. However, going to university in a diverse city such as Oxford has truly opened my eyes to the range of in-depth knowledge given to overseas students. One such Latvian student I know who studies German and business here possesses a far higher level of mathematical knowledge than I or more or less any of my British scientific peers, and she came here at barely age 17.
Giles, Oxford, UK
As a Theoretical physics graduate who only ever wanted to be a scientist as a kid but is now an actor, I have to say that I lost my way at University. Largely this was due to my lack of self-motivation, but the teaching was far from inspiring. Only two of my lecturers were engaging - one was truly outstanding. The others were terrible. And there was very little effort to engage the students. Even when my lecture group was reduced to 3 in my third year, the lecturers still made no effort to get to know us or make contact.
Eventually, I scraped through with a pass and soon realised I'd blown my career. Unlike other subjects, there really was no way to get back on track, even though I tried for 5 years. I couldn't even get a position as a lab technician.
And so they lost someone who's only dream had been to be scientist. I'm sure there are many others with similar stories.
Martin Hobbs, Brighton
"The current school system doesn't help. If you give up on maths and science at 16 then there is no way back for you; your options are curtailed as far as a career in science goes."
This is not true. I stopped Science and maths after secondary school, however having not enjoying business at university I reapplied for a foundation year at the university of Manchester. I hope to study Aeronautical Engineering in September and eventually progress into the navy. So there are ways to get into science and engineering you just have to look.
Tom Senior, Manchester
A Baccalaureate-type system is long overdue. From an economic point of view, we are in for a long decline if we cannot remedy the skills shortages in this country. The rest of the world does not owe us a living, we compete or we don't work. A drastic change is needed to break the culture of too much testing, too little learning and zero attention spans that we seem to have become addicted to.
Edwin Beggs, Swansea
Actually the going rate for a top class brain (which I'm defining as one with a PhD from a top class university) is about 25k a year if you continue in academic science after a PhD. If you took any other job that requires three-years post-graduate training you'd expect to make a whole lot more than that. So personally I find it surprising both that any top class brains do continue in UK academic science, and that your writer thinks companies can't recruit them because of salary.
Jenny, Cambridge, UK
I'm currently on an exchange program in Canada as part of my course in Ecology at the University of Stirling, and hopefully will graduate in a years time, however the current employment possibilities in the UK for a person who's just graduated in this field are virtually zero, it's a catch 22 situation - nearly every single job I look at requires some level of experience in the field, how are graduates supposed to gain this experience if we can't get a job here in the first place on account of lacking this experience? Naturally I'll be looking at other countries where the employment situation is more beneficial towards recent graduates.
Thomas Michel, Guelph, Canada
The fact is that a love of science must be instilled in students from a young age. Much as I am interested in present-day scientific developments, I was deterred from an academic career in science at GCSE level, due to the extremely tedious and largely uninteresting subject matter. Had my science courses actually concerned the mysteries of the universe, of the type the good doctor here talks about, then I would have been much more inclined towards a science degree. In education, science has its buds pruned before they even have a chance to bloom.
Matt, Northumberland, UK
It seems to me that our society values Science a great deal or people would not be so keen on all the technology, gadgets and services which stem from it. Without it this website would not exist and neither would the BBC. Personally I think you should not be allowed to own a car, a television, a computer or a mobile 'phone unless you have a fairly detailed idea of how they work. That would make people a little less lazy about learning more Science.
Malcolm Powell, Congleton
The good thing with the UK system is that when you go to college you study what you went there for rather than wasting two years doing general knowledge like in the US.
Brent Conyers, Bahamas
I do agree with Professor Miodownik, Science does need to work much harder to popularise itself. I do think the brain drain is also due to a seriously dumbed down national curriculum in science and mathematics. We must get much better at teaching mathematics in school as it is such a vital tool. Additionally a rather cavalier approach to science research funding by the government needs to be sorted out rather urgently.
Gareth, Aberystwyth, UK
When the UK starts paying engineers and scientists the salaries deserving of the top talent it wishes to employ what do you expect? Pay peanuts and you get monkeys doing the job...
Nick, Ex-Pat in San Diego.
So long as science pays so poorly in the UK I expect nothing else. The only similarity with football is that its migrant workers who are dominating the market, from the pay side of things they could not be any more different. I graduated with first class honors in Chemistry from Bristol University and I would have loved to have gone into science but it is simply unattractive from a economic stand point in the UK. In the US it seems to be a totally different story because science pays.
Jon Dodge, Toronto
It is even more worrying that so many public figures boast about their inability to understand maths and science and seem proud of the lack. Just imagine a maths genius boasting that he couldn't read a book!
Look at the poor salaries paid to experienced chartered chemists with PhDs and you'll see why so many are drawn into other careers.
Paul, Reading, UK
I'd like to see science and engineering more focused in schools. But you have to consider the recent news that funding was being cut, and you wonder really the benefit of producing the next generation scientists and engineers if the government won't finance their studies.
Andrew, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Mark is completely correct, there is a cultural antipathy in this country from the school yard names of 'nerd' and 'geek' to TV programming which favours flash over substance ('Horizon' anyone?) to the government's pursuit of achievement for all regardless of merit.
It has been remarked elsewhere that it would be unacceptable in public life not to know what Bach, Mozart, Van Gogh etc. are famous for but quite all right to know nothing of Newton, Hooke, Boyle, etc.
John Mangan, Worthing, UK
I agree with Dr Miodownik. We really need to train more home grown engineers and scientists and he is right about the education system needing changing to achieve that.
I particularly like the football analogy, especially with the FA cup fixtures this weekend. Three lower division teams that are grossly under funded and rely mainly on British players have beaten the multimillion pound international reliant premiership teams.
If science heads the same way it may not just be Britain that regrets a slow down in development.
David Scanlon, Guildford, Surrey