Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

Science and vision

Test tubes


Britain still doesn't seem to take a broad science education seriously when it deserves to be at the very heart of learning, writes Lisa Jardine.

The Royal Society turns 350 this year and the celebrations have begun already. We British can be justifiably proud that this great institution has been a beacon for science since 1660.

It seems timely, then, to ask ourselves why Britain still does not seem to take a broad science education seriously. Whenever it is suggested that it might be in the country's economic interests to invest more in a science foundation for education, a chorus of influential people insists that our traditional "liberal education" is under threat, and we are in danger of concentrating funding on less "humane" subjects like science and engineering.

Lisa Jardine
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Last November the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, who oversees higher education, launched a new framework for future developments in higher education under the title, "Higher Ambitions: the future of universities in a knowledge economy".

There would, it stated, be "enhanced support for degrees in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, and other skills that underwrite Britain's competitive advantages". "We must use scarce resources well [the report went on]. In future this should mean more research concentration, especially in the high-cost scientific disciplines."

A month later, universities learned that deep cuts were to be made in their funding to reduce the government's budget deficit. Alarm bells rang. Lord Patten, chancellor of the University of Oxford, cautioned that a slimmed-down university must not be allowed to be "all about churning out engineers and biotech companies".

Faith in science

"There is the utilitarian case for higher education: but there is also a liberal case. People say: 'What use is classics or history?' Ask Peter Mandelson, he and I both read humanities at Oxford, was it entirely worthless? A university degree helped us to think for ourselves, write decent sentences and stand up for our own opinions."

Well over a century ago the country's elite seemed more willing to pin their hopes on science education to enable Britain to compete commercially with the rapidly growing economic and industrial power of Germany and the United States.

The mathematician and moral philosopher, William Kingdon Clifford FRS, was just one of those who put their faith in science as the foundation of all that was good and worthwhile for the nation's future.

In 1872 he summed up that era's scientific optimism in a lecture delivered to the recently-founded British Association: "Remember, then, that scientific thought is the guide of action; that the truth at which it arrives is that which we may act upon without fear; and you cannot fail to see that scientific thought is not an accompaniment or condition of human progress, but human progress itself."

William Kingdon Clifford FRS
Clifford was passionate about science

To clear-thinking, forward-looking men and women it seemed plain that "human progress itself" - civilisation and its benefits for mankind - depended upon science, and that new discoveries in science should be part of ordinary public discourse. And this at a time when only a tiny fraction of those who had received a university education had any knowledge of science to speak of. To quote William Clifford again:

"Such distrust or dislike of science, then, as is to be found among us, is due to circumstances which are rapidly disappearing, to misunderstandings and imperfect training. In the good times coming when there shall be no member of parliament who does not know as much of science as a scholar, all this will have changed." (I shall come back to that.)

Clifford was by no means alone in his passionate conviction that science was the key to the future. In May 1870 the government set up a Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science, chaired by William Cavendish, Seventh Duke of Devonshire. It was given the task of consulting as wide a spectrum as possible of interested parties to find out the state of science teaching in our education system at all levels, and to propose far-reaching changes.

The immediate impetus behind what became known as the "Devonshire Commission" was concern among industrialists and manufacturers that Germany in particular was gaining a significant economic advantage over Britain. It had recently completely overhauled its education system, introducing science throughout the curriculum and establishing specialist technical universities.


The Commission heard evidence from a wide range of industrial, educational and scientific authorities. Its eight lengthy reports published between 1872 and 1875, furnished voluminous evidence of the extraordinary inadequacy of scientific education currently available, the paucity of provision at Oxford and Cambridge, the poverty of the London colleges, and the elementary level of scientific instruction available in even the most advanced schools. Facilities for science research, they reported, were almost non-existent.

The choice of William Cavendish as Devonshire Commission chairman was an inspired one. A quiet, thoughtful man, who had distinguished himself in mathematics at Cambridge. At the time the Commission was set up he had become one of the richest industrialists in the country.

In a science-dominated world, such a low level of scientific understanding among our parliamentarians is a problem.

By his own commercial acumen he had rebuilt the Devonshire family fortunes - severely depleted by his predecessor's lavish expenditure on waterworks at Chatsworth. It was Cavendish whose shrewd management and generous financing had driven the expansion of the iron-foundries at Barrow-in-Furness, and had established the profitable and effective Furness railway, which carried the foundries' output to the coast.

Cavendish had first-hand experience of the need for a work force with a proper command of science and scientific reasoning for industrial success. In 1875 he funded the building of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, thereby providing the university with a purpose-built research facility for physics of a kind which his own Commission would recommend as essential for a vibrant scientific future.

The appointment of Norman Lockyer as the Commission's secretary was equally far-sighted. Lockyer had founded the general scientific journal Nature a year earlier, embarking upon a lifelong campaign to promote scientific research and education. His journal (then as now) was a conduit through which both research findings and opinion among British scientists could be formulated and communicated accessibly. Lockyer saw to it that Nature kept the progress and findings of the Devonshire Commission in the public eye.


Among the Commission's recommendations were: establishing properly endowed professorships in the sciences at Oxford and Cambridge, putting the London colleges on a more secure financial footing, introducing sweeping curriculum changes at school level to make room for basic science instruction, and a Ministry for Science to support the government. This last might, the Commission suggested, simply consist of the Royal Society itself.

Had all these changes been implemented, it is quite possible that Britain would today stand head and shoulders above the rest of Europe in science and engineering. So what went wrong?

Changes were made, including the introduction of properly funded science professorships. But the Devonshire reports' bolder proposals for curriculum reform were never implemented. In spite of the optimism of people like Clifford, Lockyer and Cavendish, opinion formers baulked at the idea of diluting a humanities-centred school curriculum which, they maintained, offered a proper "preparation for life". Science, they feared, might turn out to be a training of more limited scope.

School student
Few MPs have higher education qualification in science

I said I would return to Clifford's dream that "in the good time coming there shall be no member of parliament who does not know as much of science as a scholar". In part as a consequence of the failure of the Devonshire Commission, that dream is still far from being realised. Today, indeed, according to the Times' science correspondent, Mark Henderson, fewer than one in five sitting MPs has a higher education qualification in science or medicine. After the next election, he has suggested, there will be even fewer.

In a science-dominated world, such a low level of scientific understanding among our parliamentarians is a problem. How are our elected representatives supposed to take informed decisions on complex scientific matters on our behalf? Remedial action is called for. According to Conservative Central office, classes explaining scientific method and basic concepts will be included in the induction programme for all Tory MPs after the next election.

This is not a question of "either, or". William Clifford's conviction was not that science would supplant traditional learning, but enrich it. When he died of tuberculosis in 1879 at the tragically young age of 33, he left us a lucid book on common-sense understanding of the exact sciences, but he was also a dreamer, and the bulk of his writing was on morality. The introduction to his posthumously published essays celebrates "the daring versatility of his thought", the "boundless range of his human interests and sympathies".

Meanwhile I am still waiting for a visionary to come along, who can persuade us to put science where it deserves, at the very heart of education.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Surely the biggest problem with our education system is that we require students to specialise so soon. Choosing which four or five subjects to study to A-Level you are encouraged to choose subjects that "complement" each other, so that a student interested in History is discouraged from also following up an interest in Physics and may even find that the two subjects clash. This is the point where the division between the Arts and the Sciences becomes apparent. Arguably we should follow the examples of America and France, where students study a range of subjects all the way through school and then continue this approach alongside their specialist subject at university, rather than picking a specialism at the age of 16 and having time constraints force them to stick with it for life.
Kate, Colwyn Bay, UK

The widespread lack of scientific knowledge amongst our politicians concerns me. I don't expect every MP to be a scientist but a few more with a background in science or medicine might be useful. It would certainly help to avoid another ridiculous incident like the sacking of Professor Nutt. If a substantial number of MPs understood the science behind his claims, they would have listened to them and acted accordingly rather than ignoring the evidence. As for visionaries who can persuade us to put science at the heart of education- we already have those. David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins have been telling us that for years, but unfortunately there are enough creationists and other assorted "Your science offends my beliefs" types to drown them out with their constant shouting.
Gemma, Reading, UK

I always enjoy Lisa Jardine, but this morning especially so, because I direct the National Science Learning Centre and I too am passionate about the place of science in a broad general education. Lisa is a little hard on the National Curriculum, which since 1989 has made science a compulsory part of every young person's education. The problem is that we still do not have a settled national consensus about what should be in the curriculum, and in particular how the curriculum can do two jobs: to inspire and prepare the future generation of specialist scientists; and to provide a grounding in scientific literacy for all future citizens, whether or not they will take their study of science further. The debate about how to reconcile these two rumbles on.
Sir John Holman, York

With the debate of whether Creationism should be taught in Biology it is clear that Science is held in extremely low esteem in this modern religion-biased world. Three subjects should have priority above all others; Mathematics, English and Science.
Stephen, Cardiff

I think we should face the truth that science is inherently difficult to master, at least at any advanced level that is useful in the modern world. This does not sit well with an educational establishment that needs to meet headcount targets for exam passes. Neither does it fit well with our post-modernist, multicultural and rather anti-science society, where all points of view are (subjectively) considered equally valid. In contrast, for science, there are objectively right and wrong answers. Sadly, as this article shows, the UK has suffered from this anti-science attitude for generations. Nobody so far has effectively changed it. I fear we will soon be left behind by science-savvy nations of Asia, not afraid of the hard work and investment necessary to master and compete in the sciences.
Peter, Cambridge, UK

The problem is teaching sciences is made so incomparably dull by some teachers. Your sat in front of a huge text book trying to soak in information. My nephew actually came home and said "science is boring" how can a child say that science the driving force behind all innovations from the car to the computer is boring. So my view would be to make science more appealing bring in more practical science for youngsters at secondary school to give them incentive to take it further and that a book does contain a lot of information. But as schools are strapped for cash normally the first thing to go is "practicals".
Andrew, Chesterfield

I am just shocked how sciences are loosing the important place they had in UK. I am from a poor country in Latin America where people hardly have access to education, I came here to study a PhD and I was fascinated for all facilities people have to learn lot of things, however, people (mainly youngest ones) are not interested of learning anything and still less, sciences. I think the problem with visionary people is that they are refused by the groups in power because precisely they have a different way of doing things. Having a visionary on sciences, politic or whatever other important place of society, it would mean to do important changes on the structure and functions of all a system which is not very welcome for majority.
Mary, Ascot

A brilliant article, and one that has been a long time coming. However, there is one very important point that is missed. Science in the media is in as poor a state as science in government - Ben Goldacre sums this up beautifully in his book "Bad Science", which I wholeheartedly (and impartially!) recommend. In an age when our Minister for Energy and Climate change studied PPE, when MPs like John Redwood dismiss scientific advice as "an extravagance" we desperately need a better level of scientific understanding in education, the media and in government.
Daniel S, Cambridge

Why do so few MPs have a higher education qualification? Is it perhaps that a scientific education teaches you to logically evaluate and debate facts to come to a considered conclusion? Sharing ideas and information is central to that, as is accepting ideas from others when they are more relevant than your own. None of that seems compatible with politics and certainly not with party politics.
Chris Watts, Ashford, Middlesex

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