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.”