September 12, 2008

A Scientific Lesson in Life


Science has enjoyed an unusually high profile this week. It is rare for a laboratory experiment to get live coverage on the international news networks, but that was the honour bestowed on the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider at the Cern research centre in Switzerland.

This is no ordinary experiment of course, but the largest and most ambitious ever attempted. Over the past two decades, Cern has drawn on the expertise of a veritable army of scientists. And it helps, of course, that it is researching the most fundamental question of all: how the universe came to be. The public interest that Cern has generated is a wonderful example of how science can inspire us to ask questions and think more deeply about the world around us. All it needs to do now is provide some useful scientific data.

But we should not allow the excitement of Cern to distract us from the fact that not all is well with the study of science in Britain. A report published last week showed that thousands of bright children are giving up maths and science at 16 because they, wrongly, do not believe they are clever enough to succeed at A- level. The decline of university chemistry and physics departments has been well chronicled. And yesterday, Sir Michael Reiss, the director of education at the Royal Society, voiced concerns that up to a tenth of children in Britain hold "creationist" beliefs in the origins of the world. Religious beliefs do not, of course, preclude someone from believing in evolution. There are plenty of religious scientists around the world. But it is easy to understand Sir Michael's concern about the difficulty of educating those young minds prejudiced at an early age by fundamentalist beliefs.

It would be idle to suggest that there are any quick and easy solutions. There are certainly many things that the Government can be doing to make a career in science more attractive. More resources could be devoted to school science departments. And the line must, of course, be held against those who would put up creationism as an alternative "theory" to Darwinian evolution in the classroom.

But unlike the particles fired through the Cern's Large Hadron Collider, the process of restoring science to its rightful position at the centre of our education system is likely to be slow and gradual.

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