Invest in science or risk the economy

A lack of investment in the sciences over many years is posing a risk to the UK economy - and the go

The Science Museum will open its new Launchpad gallery to the public on Saturday, allowing hordes of children to launch a rocket, capture a multicoloured shadow or turn their head into a sound box.

The £4m revamp has turned the perennially popular exhibition into an all-singing, all-dancing experience, which the museum hopes will boost the flagging popularity of science in schools and universities.

Traditional science subjects have found it hard to compete in a world where school leavers can choose to take a university degree in surfing, decision-making or golf-course management.

In recent years there has been a significant drop-off in the number of people studying physics and chemistry at A-level and university. The decline has been so great that a number of universities have closed their physics and chemistry departments, an unprecedented step.

This has worrying implications for a country that has always been at the forefront of technology and innovation in science. According to Dr. Hilary Leevers, Acting Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE) organisation, "businesses are having to look further and further afield to find the people they need – we're just not producing the skilled workforce that they require. A radical improvement is needed or this is going to have a significant effect on the UK economy".

The UK still ranks well in terms of research and innovation, standing at number two in the world for biological sciences and number four for physical sciences (which includes physics and chemistry.) However Professor Michael Reiss, Director of Education at the Royal Society, fears that our position in the physical sciences will drop further if the situation does not improve - "it is not something we can take for granted," he says.

The problem, it is generally agreed, begins in schools. “Children enter secondary school aged eleven full of enthusiasm for science” says Reiss, “but by the time they reach sixteen that seems to have disappeared – we need to change that.”

Between 1991 and 2004 there was a drop of 34% in the number of A-level students taking physics, and a drop of 16% in chemistry over the same years. There have been incremental improvements recently but nowhere near enough to bring the number of students back up to pre-1991 levels.

Part of the problem is that science teaching is, according to Reiss, hopelessly out of date with the rising expectations of today's students. While chemistry and physics lessons used to present an opportunity to do hands-on and engaging work, even the chance to explode something on a good day, overbearing health and safety laws have limited the scope for practical learning.

This, argues Reiss, is where exhibitions like the Launchpad at the Science Museum come in. “Exhibitions make a big difference – they help to make science exciting again. They are closely formulated with schools to genuinely complement the national curriculum and the learning of science in the classrooms.”

Gordon Brown seemed to agree, pledging £13m to the Science Museum at the press opening of the new Launchpad on Tuesday. He argued that we need scientists more than ever in the face of global restructuring and environmental issues, and described technology as “central to our wealth.”

The prime minister also announced that £8m would go to fund science and technology clubs in schools, while a scheme was being piloted to give £500 to teachers who take courses in maths, chemistry or physics.

These schemes are part of Labour's 10 year Science and Innovation Investment plan, announced in 2004. Some advances have been made, but according to Dr. Leevers “the initiative has only had a small impact so far. A lot of the government's work has been on increasing engagement, but we need to focus more on teaching.”

Both Leevers and Reith agree that science teachers, or lack thereof, are the nexus of the problem. A quarter of schools have no specialist physics teacher and one in six lack a chemistry specialist. Almost inevitably the problem is at its worst in deprived areas.

A lack of specialist teachers means that many schools are forced to offer combined sciences at GCSE, which is “good enough, but single sciences are far better for students going on to take A-levels in physics and chemistry” says Reiss. He also notes that teachers with a strong knowledge of their subject are much better at engaging students and making the classes interesting.

Encouraging more students to take an interest in science lays the foundations for a better future for science and technology in the UK, but Leevers argues that more needs to be done. “The problem is already severe, and if the government does not take big steps to deal with it now then it will only get worse.”

Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.