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Science is for life, not just for school

Karen Folkes urges us all to be role models

Karen Folkes urges us all to be role models.


The Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently commented that he wished he had worked harder at science at school because an understanding of science is important in life.

He is now finding that out the hard way as he hosts meetings to talk about subjects as diverse as graphene and dementia.  

Public Attitudes to Science 2014 – what next?

The quest for general scientific literacy has shown an upward trend in successive Public Attitudes to Science Surveys.

The Survey in 2011 provided evidence that the UK public values science and is interested in finding out about it, with two-thirds agreeing that knowing about science is important to them personally. The data indicated that public interest in science has increased since the first Public Attitudes study in 2000, with half the public wanting to hear and see more information about science than they currently do: five in ten (51 per cent) think they hear and see too little or far too little.

Ipsos Mori are currently analysing the data from the latest of these three-yearly surveys which is due to be published in March 2014. It will be interesting to see if this current trajectory continues or whether the UK public has reached saturation point.

New issues, new public dialogue

Personally, I would doubt this as science is now rolling news.  Just witness the range of questions examined by BIS’s Sciencewise programme. This last year has seen some interesting issues being tackled by decision makers across government:  mitochondrial DNA, patient involvement in health research, openness in animal research. The current portfolio of projects is no exception: flooding, stratified medicine, bovine TB, shale gas, and radioactive waste siting.

Part of the rationale for public dialogue is to ensure those driving scientific development are taking into account public views about ethics, regulation and governance. Some see it as a way of avoiding another debacle like GM. This approach has been taken up by the Responsible Innovation movement, promoted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and is currently enjoying support from the Technology Strategy Board on synthetic biology.

PISA delivery

Citizens having an understanding of science and getting involved in debate creates the right environment for a greater commitment to the academic study of science across the population.

The issue that hits the headlines most often is the need for more young people to study science, technology engineering and maths – or STEM – subjects, and for them to take up STEM careers to help the UK to maintain both our world-class research position and improve our economic performance.

There is a plethora of data to support this need. The Perkins Review of Engineering Skills has diagnosed insufficient numbers of people progressing through the STEM pipeline to support continued economic growth.  

Chiming in with this has been the 2014 Annual Report from Engineering UK which also identifies inequality in the uptake and progression of women into engineering.

On the international stage the UK gets a discouraging read-out from the PISA survey (Programme for International Student Assessment) where the UK occupies 26th place for Maths.   

Roll out the role models

The question is always, ‘What can we do about it?’ Alongside the myriad reports identifying the problem are equal numbers of initiatives designed to address it, using events, communications, engagement, policy levers and role models.

This last one seems to be gaining in appeal. With its Nobel Laureates and science communicators like Brian Cox and the ‘new Patrick Moore’ Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the UK does not lack high profile role models. However, we need more, and from all walks of life, to demonstrate that science can be for everyone, whether that’s as a career or as part of our everyday lives.

Whether as a parent or a Prime Minister, we can all be science role models of sorts.

Photo copyright: Department for Health

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Karen Folkes
Karen Folkes is Deputy Head of the Science and Society team of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
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