07/09/2011 20:01 BST | Updated 07/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Public Ignorance isn't Peculiar to Science

Scientists habitually moan that the public doesn't understand them. But they complain too much: public ignorance isn't peculiar to science. It's sad if some citizens can't tell a proton from a protein. But it's equally sad if they're ignorant of their nation's history, can't speak a second language, and can't find Venezuela or Syria on a map -- and many can't. Indeed, I'm gratified and surprised that so many people are interested in dinosaurs, the Large Hadron Collider, or alien life -- all blazingly irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. We should be grateful to David Attenborough, Robert Winston, Brian Cox and other popular writers and TV presenters for generating such interest. But it's depressing that, all too often, this natural enthusiasm of the young has been stifled by the time they leave school.

That's sad because science is important for its own sake. It's a cultural deprivation not to appreciate the wonderful panorama offered by modern cosmology, DNA, and Darwinian evolution. This common understanding should transcend all national differences -- and all faiths too. It's part of global culture (though yet to fully penetrate the US Bible Belt , and parts of the Islamic world).

A second reason why science education is important is that today's young people will grow up in a world ever more dependent on elaborate technology -- but also more vulnerable to its failures and misuse.

Who should access the 'readout' of our personal genetic code? How will our lengthening life-spans affect society? Should we build nuclear power stations -- or wind farms -- if we want to keep the lights on? How can the world support 9 billion people by mid-century? Should we use more insecticides, or plant GM crops? Should the law allow 'designer babies'?

These choices can't -- and shouldn't -- be made just by scientists. They need wide public discussion. But for debate to rise above mere tabloid slogans, everyone needs a 'feel' for science, for our environment, and a realistic assessment of risk.

And even though the details of science are arcane, the key concepts can be conveyed at school level - the best TV presenters achieve this, using non-technical words and simple images.

By the way, I'm using the word 'science' in a broad sense, to encompass technology and engineering -- this is not just to save words, but because they're symbiotically linked . 'Problem solving' motivates us all --whether one is a cosmologist, , or an engineer facing a down-to-earth design conundrum. There is at least as much challenge in the latter --- a point neatly made by an old cartoon showing two beavers looking up at a hydroelectric dam. One beaver says 'I didn't actually build it, but it's based on my idea'.

The Swedish engineer who invented the zip fastener made a greater intellectual leap than many scientists do in a lifetime.

And there is a third reason why science education is high on the agenda: an ever-growing fraction of jobs need specific skills -- at levels ranging from basic technical competence through to professional scientists, medics and engineers. More of our young people need to attain each of these levels of expertise. . To attract the brightest and best of the next generation, prominent role models would be helpful -- preferably not all male, grey and stale.

A decade ago, BBC TV ran a series of programmes to identify '100 Greatest Britons'. The advocates of Darwin and Newton slugged it out among the final six. But there was a third contender -- Brunel. And he did better than either, for two reasons. First, his advocate was Jeremy Clarkson. Second, there were rumours that students from Brunel University voted early and often. Nonetheless, this was an all-too-rare instance of a great engineer being publicly acclaimed. (The others finalists were, by the way, Churchill, Shakespeare and Princess Diana.)

But Brunel is long dead. Why can't more of our top scientists and engineers have the profile of our leading architects -- like Foster, Rogers? It's good that James Dyson is pushing for this cause.

There are concerns in the United States, too, about fostering scientific talent . Back in the 1950s, the launch of Sputnik by the USSR gllvanised the US into strengthening its science. In his State of the Union Address last January President Obama said that US faced another 'sputnik moment', and that spearheading science education and research would be the engine of economic recovery. He gave a nice metaphor: "If you're on an aeroplane that's overweight, it doesn't help to throw out an engine" .

This is a far more urgent message for the UK. We mustn't get trapped in a downward spiral. University admission tutors are dismayed that so many young people aren't sufficiently well prepared by their schools to qualify for the most challenging courses. Businesses find that many aren't qualified for apprenticeships. That's because there are too few good teachers. Pupils in many secondary schools don't get exposed even to one. And less than a third of primary schools has even a single teacher with any scientific qualification.

This shortage can't be remedied quickly. But, as key steps, it's important to reduce the fraction of young teachers who rapidly drop out, to facilitate mid-career transfer into the profession (from, for instance, industry, universities or the armed forces), and promote links between schools and their local universities.

We need, too, to enliven what is taught. Newton, when young, made model windmills and clocks -- the high-tech artifacts of his time. Darwin collected fossils and beetles. The young Einstein was fascinated by the electric motors and dynamos in his father's factory.

Fifty years ago, inquisitive children could take apart a clock, a radio set, or motorbike, figure out how it worked, and even put it together again. But it's different today. There's now, for the first time, a huge gulf between the artifacts of our everyday life, and what even a single expert, let alone the average child, can comprehend. The gadgets that now pervade young people's lives, i-phones and suchlike, are baffling "black boxes" -- pure magic to most people. Even if you take them apart you'll find few clues to their arcane miniaturised mechanisms. And you certainly can't put them together again.

The extreme sophistication of modern technology -- wonderful though its benefits are -- is, ironically, an impediment to engaging young people with basics -- with learning how things work. Likewise, town-dwellers are more distanced from the natural world than earlier generations were.

Crucial to science education is hands-on involvement: showing, not just telling; real experiments and field trips and not just 'virtual reality'.

But there are reasons to be cheerful. There is a huge educational upside from computers and the web -- indeed even greater for the developing world than for us. The Khan Academy website, essentially the creation of one individual, it's a fine exemplar. It contains more than 2000 10-minute videos covering basic maths and other subjects -- which could help to enlighten millions worldwide.

Moreover, the internet it allows young people to participate in frontier science. For example, in the Galaxy Zoo project, images of 3 million galaxies can be viewed on the web, and the labour-intensive task of classifying them is being shared by thousands of keen amateur astronomers, many of them of school age.

These technologies can enhance the impact of every outstanding teacher -- indeed it can give some a global reach. But it can never eliminate the need for high-quality professionals in the classroom. We should emulate Finland, where teachers have high status and mainly drawn from the top 10 percent of university graduates. Otherwise we may end up having to import teachers from India or Korea, and being outclassed by those nations in frontier technology -- a shameful comedown, and an economic calamity