Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Wrecking of British Science

Harry Kroto is one of those larger than life figures whose life we are lucky to cross in our lives every now and again. He was a professor of chemistry at the University of Sussex when I was a PhD student there, and received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for his discovery of the C60 molecule, aka buckminsterfullerene. He was the prime mover behind the Vega Science Trust, a UK educational charity (see He has been one of the participants of the heroes in science programme here at Reykjavik University, where he played with models of C60 molecules together with local kids.

Why am I droning on about this guy, you may ask? The reason is that I just read this article he wrote for the Guardian. (I strongly recommend that you read it, especially if your heart still feels for the British university system like mine does.) The picture Kroto paints is bleak, but all too familiar, alas. Throughout the western world, the number of students interested in science is declining frighteningly, at a time when our society is so dependent on science. As Kroto writes in that article:

Scientific education is by far the best training for all walks of life, because it teaches us how to assess situations critically and react accordingly. It gives us an understanding based on reverence for life-enhancing technologies as well as for life itself. If we do not know how things work, how can we fix things? And how are we going to use these powerful technologies wisely?

The situation in universities is exacerbated by present policy, which actively encourages vice-chancellors who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing to eliminate science departments in favour of trendy, cheap courses. These VCs bleat about how important their freedom is to do whatever they wish with taxpayers' money, and steer funds earmarked for the sciences into softer areas that students prefer.

Just as cheap fast food has resulted in unprecedented levels of obesity, so this McDonald's approach to cheap, trendy, seductively soft courses designed for mass consumption in tertiary education has resulted in a plethora of students trained for non-existent jobs.

Even more important than the training for non-existent jobs is the worrying decrease in our society of that willingness to think critically, to work on problems, to be creative, and to challenge ourselves that are one of the main ingredients of our humanity. I sincerely hope that the new Icelandic government that was formed today will work proactively to put science on the agenda in Icelandic schools at all levels. It is a small step, but one has to start somewhere.

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