blenare extremely grateful to Professor Malcolm Povey for his kind permission to reproduce his article, ‘How can science benefit us all?’, on the website.
How can science benefit us all? Professor Malcolm Povey says breaking away from the current ‘market approach’ is the key to increasing scientific understanding and enriching peoples’ lives.
Our Society could not exist without science. Modern capitalism would not have come in to being without it. Britain is a prosperous nation today because of the role science played in the bourgeois revolutions, where new industrial and factory methods were developed. As Karl Marx said ‘science is one of the forces of production’; it helps us to satisfy human needs - food, shelter, and clothing, and is essential for modern human existence.
Science and capitalism, though, have never been easy bed fellows. Capitalism expects science to satisfy human need and to simultaneously enrich the coffers of business. Because science requires time and funding large companies and institutions have enjoyed a monopoly over what questions science addresses. It is they who employ the most scientists.
An example is the immense investment going into nuclear power which can only be understood in the context of a militarised world competition whose ultimate terror weapon is the atomic bomb. 40% of the European Union budget for scientific research over the next 6 years is planned to be spent on nuclear development. On the other hand, relatively little research effort is going into solving the epidemics in obesity, diabetes and HIV, and the proportion of the EU budget addressing renewable energy resources is one tenth of that devoted to nuclear development.
The modern ‘scientist’ is a creation of capitalism, rather than the Renaissance, Priestley and Newton would hardly recognise their selves in a white laboratory coat. The gigantic Manhattan project (created to develop nuclear weapons during World War 2) changed science. The 'successes' of this big scale science led to the establishment of huge laboratories such as CERN in Geneva and the Bell Labs in the USA. The impetus of the cold war and military competition led to the space race, new communication needs, and new scientific horizons.
All this, though, came at a cost. The emphasis placed on profit and exploitation alienated scientists and undermined the intellectual rigour that underpins science. It is the surprising and unexpected which generates new discoveries, but a prepared mind is required to understand their significance. Thus the failure to educate students as scientists has a direct impact on the development of new technology.
Now physics and chemistry departments find themselves in an economic vice. On the one hand they are expected to compete economically with departments which need far less laboratory investment. On the other hand, students paying fees see basic science as less relevant to their job prospects. As a result there have been large falls in graduates wanting to study engineering and technology, with women particularly underrepresented. Declining student numbers and rising laboratory costs have made departments more expensive to run, leaving the good teaching of science even more on a knife edge
Whatever way you look at it, science education in schools is in a bad way. The numbers of teachers well qualified to teach science is declining, applications for university science courses are falling and departments closing. The numbers of school students taking A level science subjects are diminishing and time and resources needed for laboratory study and scientific investigation in schools get cut every year.
A serious blow to science education has come from the national curriculum and the SATS, as in all other subject areas taught in schools. They lower pupil’s self-esteem, and set them on a downward spiral of lower motivation, less effort and even lower results in the tests. Moreover, pupils see the goals of education in terms of passing tests rather than developing an understanding about what they are learning, and end up judging themselves and others by their test results. A consequence is that the gap between the lower and higher achieving pupils is widened.
The tests are reminiscent of Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, who advocates Facts, Facts, Facts - drilled out of context. An examination of the current National Curriculum indicates that its structure derives from the former Tory governments training agenda, not an educational agenda based on encouraging the development of ideas and their interrelations, philosophy and freedom of thought. This is important in the teaching of science where a scientific view requires confidence in ideas and their subsequent testing by experiment and debate. SATS multiple choice format enforces a rigid, one-correct-answer, approach - hardly a recipe for freedom of thought.
According to the recent and well publicised Cambridge Assessments report this testing agenda has been particularly damaging in Primary Schools and there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that if students have not become interested in science by the age of nine, then they are much less likely to take an interest later.
For science to flourishthere must be an ideological shift. Scientific research should not be assessed on the basis of potential earning power. Instead we should be encouraging a pursuit of knowledge across the board. It’s wrong that large industries and transnational corporations have been allowed to plunder the best scientists from wherever in the world they happen to have been educated, and to bend them to their causes. This has been at the expense of other forms of scientific research that could benefit us all.
Higher Education in Britain has become too much at the behest of the market. Academic arguments too often take second place to monetary considerations. This economic pressure has led to a massive reduction in the amount of 'experimental' science being taught, when we need to be teaching these skills.
All universities need basic science departments such as chemistry, physics and mathematics. These disciplines are an essential part of the culture of today's society and deserve to be understood far more widely than they are. Science needs to break out of its 'elitist' bracket and become accessible to everybody. Everyone is a scientist, even the child testing its surroundings, and general scientific debate is not taken anything like seriously enough. Scientists must engage much more widely with the media and the public.
It would help if the government funded science properly. Despite pumping lots of money in to science as a whole, key areas are losing out. Astronomy and Physics have been among the worst hit with the announcement that the famous Jodrell Bank radio telescope will be closed together with a 10% cut in overall funding for university physics departments. Although there has been some backtracking on this in the face of public pressure, astronomy and particle physics funding faces an £80 million shortfall in cash from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) over the next three years.
Science funding has been restructured based on Full Economic Costing (FEC). The head of STFC Professor Keith Mason said “We have to make some economies in the short term to put the research on a sustainable basis in the long-term”. Unfortunately this is a pact with the devil. The deal is that the money necessary to sustain science will only be made available by government if a measureable profit is seen on the bottom line of Britain’s biggest companies. In other words, Jodrell Bank, physics, and astronomy have to earn their keep to survive. Since it is impossible to measure the ‘profit’ from a radio telescope and activities like physics and astronomy they are now in peril.
The Government’s obsession with the market further threatens science. In the same way that health service funding increases were absorbed by the creation of a bureaucracy whose purpose is to privatise health, so the government is creating a layer of middle-(mostly)men whose job is to mediate between science, government and business.
Science is a human activity like art, which the profit system distorts and alienates and is increasingly threatening the core of inspiration that lie at their heart. Science is part of the heritage of all human beings.
Malcolm Povey is Professor of Food Physics at the University of Leeds, and is a member of UCU’s National Education Committee.
blen agrees with Professor Povey with regards the difficulties concerning science teaching and learning, and think that an early start in science education is incredibly important to encourage continuing interest and participation in the subject throughout schooling and adult life. To this end and purpose, there should be an attempt to overcome any barrier pertaining to scientific literacy from an early age.