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.”

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times