Behind Blair’s ‘bigging up’ of science
There's more to scientific endeavour than meeting confused government targets.
UK prime minister Tony Blair recently claimed that Britain’s future is ‘lit by the brilliant light of science’ (1). So why does the future of science education in schools and universities seem so gloomy? Basic science is being shunned in our universities as more and more physics and chemistry departments are closed down. In schools, media studies has overtaken physics as a subject of choice at A-level. It seems incontrovertible that science is just not as popular as it used to be.
Blair’s praises may well be genuine and I have no problem with him ‘bigging up’ Britain’s scientific achievements and scientists’ imagination in finding uses for new developments in basic science. The new synchrotron radiation facility known as the ‘Diamond in Chilton’, which Blair visited a couple of weeks ago, was no doubt the inspiration for his recent speech. But his vision of the role of science was not so much lit up by the intensity of the beam of x-rays that Diamond can produce as it was by the political imperatives that science can serve.
Of course Blair, like most others, believes science is important, but it is the possibility of turning basic research into commercial products that really excites him. Innovation is central to his vision of our continued economic prosperity and so it is our ability to stay ahead of the growing technical expertise of China and India that is fuelling the government’s desire to invest in science. According to Blair, science needs to be subordinated to the needs of the market.
Perhaps even more important is the capacity of science to provide the framework for the government’s crusade against global warming. According to Blair, this is ‘our Moon landing’ – we now have a real chance to put idealism back into science. It is through the mission to save planet Earth that Blair has gained a real sense of purpose and connection with the public at large and so science must be instrumental in this crusade. Whether it is by providing bio-fuels or substantiating the evidence for the effects of global warming, science now has a new master. It is not the search for truth that underlies scientific endeavour today, but fulfilling the government’s dream of a low-carbon economy.
Unfortunately, saving the planet is not quite as inspiring as Blair imagines. The moon landings did inspire many of today’s scientists and engineers to take up their professions, as the spiked survey ‘What Inspired You?’ clearly shows (2). But things change; in a survey of nearly 100 A-level science students that I carried out at my school this term, two thirds believed the moon landings never even happened. This was a clear illustration of young people’s scepticism towards even the greatest achievements of science and humanity, and it brings the lie to the belief that climate change can act as a clarion call for young people to join the scientific community. The environmental agenda is one premised on the idea that human intervention has brought the world to the brink of disaster, which is hardly a ringing endorsement for science. If anything, the public sees the desire to understand and master nature as human arrogance, and for the most part the climate change lobby itself has a distinctly pessimistic view of the capacity of humans to make the world a better place to live.
This is where Blair’s argument unravels. As he said, the most challenging problem government faces today is ‘standing up for science and rejecting an irrational public debate around it’. Clearly frustrated with his inability to convince the public of the need for new nuclear power stations or GM crops, Blair presents a picture of politicians as helpless in the struggle to defeat the case against science. Up against ‘a powerful and vocal lobby, with access to all the media channels and an interest in polarising the argument’ (3), there is very little the government or the scientific community can do.
But this seems to be contradicted by Blair’s open support for environmental campaigns like Stop Climate Chaos. Though the central message of the campaign – that Western consumer society is destroying the planet – ought to be somewhat problematic to a Western leader, it proudly displays an open letter from Blair on its website (4). And it is not just on environmental issues that Blair is giving tacit support to irrational attitudes towards science; in a podcast for the New Scientist last week he argued that scientists should not oppose homeopathy. In a direct reference to Lord Taverne’s challenge to the government’s relaxation of the regulations on the promotion of homeopathic remedies, Blair endorsed homeopathy as a lifestyle choice. But giving credibility to the claims for homeopathic remedies, which have no scientific base, can only weaken the argument for scientific medicine. How can such an endorsement help restore the confidence of a sceptical public when it comes to the scientific case for the MMR vaccination, for instance?
Blair seems to think that tinkering around with science education will make his case for him. Scientific literacy in schools is based on the idea that we just need to get into a rational conversation with the public for them to understand why science is so important. Accordingly, discussions about scientific controversies should be encouraged in the classroom, which will apparently allow teachers to just drop rational ideas about MMR, GM crops or mobile phones into the conversation. The idea is that it will get people eventually to see sense and support the government’s preferred technologies.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Teenagers are just not that stupid. If you start a conversation about the possible risks connected with using technology or the ethical concerns about scientific developments, you can’t just throw in the right answers. The conversation itself puts doubt in young people’s minds. Instead of strengthening their view of science, this discursive approach can only confirm what young people already believe – that science is suspect. What could be worse than having a teacher try to tell you that the MMR vaccination is safe? All that will happen is that young people will see science lessons as an extension of the moral education they receive in personal social and health education.
By asking science teachers to make up for the government’s inability to argue the case for science, we risk losing serious scientific study altogether. Science should be studied because of what it can tell us about the natural world, and now more than ever it is crucial to make a strong case that science is valuable in and of itself. Only if we manage to convey this will young people be prepared to put the effort into studying what amounts to a challenging academic discipline. If, on the other hand, we prostitute science education to political priorities, it is liable to become even further corrupted in the eyes of young people – it will become clear that science and scientists are the tools of their political masters. If we really want to inspire young people to take up science, we need to believe science is worth studying for its own sake.
(1) Watch Tony Blair’s speech ‘Our Nation’s Future’ here
(2) What inspired you?, October 2006
(3) See Tony Blair’s speech Our Nation’s Future from 3 November 2006
(4) Tony Blair’s letter to ‘Stop Climate Chaos’, 28 February 2006