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Science geeks of the world unite PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 01 December 2010 12:31

The government is going to withdraw all funding for the teaching of science and technology subjects. It recognises that arts, humanities and social science subjects are essential to society\'s wellbeing, and will therefore devote the small residual amount in the teaching budget to supporting these disciplines.

This policy is said to be consistent with the government\'s emphasis on economic growth. An educated, flexible and creative workforce is vital to every sector of the economy, and the contribution of an education in the humanities to fostering just these qualities is well understood. The bulk of those who have risen to the top of large corporations were educated in the humanities and their recruitment policies continue to confirm the value of such graduates to their organisations.

From what we know about the government\'s other goals, there is a strong emphasis on civic commitment, cultural literacy, national identity and democratic citizenship, and so naturally it wishes to focus on supporting the humanities. The study of subjects such as history, philosophy, literature and politics enables citizens better to place current issues in a wider framework, to address the hidden assumptions behind plausible claims, to be alert to the power of language and to appreciate the complexity of Britain\'s place in the wider world.

And finally, it is hardly surprising that the government would prioritise the humanities, given that the overwhelming majority of ministers themselves studied these disciplines at university. Their own successful careers are built on the education in clear thinking and lucid expression they received in these subjects. This probably also explains their frequent gibes about "Mickey Mouse courses" and US-inspired science PhDs as over-specialised, over-theorised and over here.

All this sets a difficult challenge to the champions of the science and technology subjects, always the Cinderellas of British higher education. Proponents of the sciences tend to argue that a "two cultures" model is misleading and out of date. They claim that all disciplines cultivate our intellect and imagination, and that we cannot give the insights and analyses derived from the humanities their proper effect in the world unless we understand the laws of nature and the properties of matter.

In more aggressive mode, some of them point out that the decision to provide funding exclusively for humanities subjects betrays a lack of confidence in the power of those subjects to attract the best young minds. If the humanities are said to be both so intrinsically compelling and socially useful, then surely there will be plenty of applicants anyway? And if the government really believes in student choice, shouldn\'t it be happy to see students flocking to the sciences instead ? even if some of these courses don\'t look like direct preparation for employment (good luck with that MSc in astronomy or theoretical physics). In recent years, several universities have had to close their chemistry or physics departments, citing lack of student demand, but the champions of science argue that this is more the result of the faulty structure of the national curriculum than any indication of the dispensability of these subjects.

More reflective spokespersons for the sciences recognise that it is self-defeating to rest their case exclusively on arguments about their disciplines\' contribution to material prosperity. It is not just that it is difficult to demonstrate the immediate economic benefits of subjects such as neuroscience or pure mathematics, especially when compared with more immediately practical subjects such as moral philosophy or media studies. It is, rather, that the very character and purpose of the sciences takes us so far beyond questions of prosperity. The drive for fuller understanding of our physical world is, in principle, limitless in much the same way that the search for fuller understanding of our human world is. It cannot be arbitrarily constrained or directed in the interests of some immediate economic gain.

Perhaps representatives of the sciences need to mount a wider campaign for public support. Being sucked into the government\'s own restrictive agenda about increasing the GDP may not be the way to go. Instead, they should surely tap into the great wellspring of public interest in and curiosity about scientific enquiry, as evidenced by the eager audiences for public lectures, panel discussions, radio talks and TV programmes. Although some science subjects may be less intellectually demanding than, say, literary criticism or art history, it should still be recognised that many bright sixth-formers choose to study them. The case for science at university level goes beyond the present generation. After all, parents of the future will not want their children to be confined to the study of just the humanities or directly vocational subjects.

In their turn, representatives of the humanities should not take a selfish or complacent view just because their budgets have been ringfenced in the past and look to be favoured in the future. They, too, should recognise that a broad base of support needs to be built up to sustain education and research across a wide front. No one would want to see the British Academy or the Arts and Humanities Research Council treating The Royal Society or the science research councils as poor relations. Public investment in education in the sciences is one hallmark of a civilised society. Can the government really be so shortsighted to favour the humanities at the direct expense of the sciences? If so, surely protest is called for. Nerds of the world unite ? you have nothing to lose but your anoraks.

This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.

Courtesy to guardian.co.uk.

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