Lisa: For anyone with a spare half an hour, I would recommend listening in to this intriguing podcast from BBC radio 4, where Mark Miodownik, lecturer in Engineering from College asks the question- do we really need more scientists?
Governments both in the UK and in Australia have been saying for years that we need more scientists- but what does that mean? Why? Why doesn’t the government say we need more artists? Musicians? Writers?
Mark asks a number of high profile scientists and mathematicians for their views and the general consensus seems to be two-fold:Firstly, there is the economic benefit of science. There are technological and environmental problems of immense scale that need to be solved, and innovation in science and technology, the so-called ‘knowledge economy’, is seen to be a way for countries like the UK and Australia to compete with the rising stars of India and China.
But- as Mark points out, we are training so many scientists and there is just so much competition out there for jobs. There is always such a focus on education and encouraging children to consider career pathways in science, engineering and technology, but why do we need to do this? You never have to encourage people to become lawyers or bankers, because they know they are valued and that they will be well paid, the same of which can’t be said for scientists. There’s a nice analogy made to Australians and sport, more Australians win Olympic medals because more people have access to sport at a young age. But there is also a wide cultural appreciation for sport in Australia that is missing for science.
When the government says we need more scientists is really what they mean- we need more ‘makers’, more people who as Tim Hunkin put it ‘think with their hands’.
The second aspect of asking if we need more scientists lies in scientific literacy. Here I would agree with Mark in what we need is not actually more scientists, but more people who think scientifically. Citizen scientists I would call them, systematic, critical thinkers, with an appreciation for the technological innovations they rely on every day. I’d love to live in a world where there are more people like Mark, who was fascinated at the engineering advances made in the humble washing machine when he recently purchased a new one, that he threw a party for his new washing machine and invited all his friends to marvel at this modern wonder we overlook every day.