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Science -never plain, not simple. We need to know that.

Posted on April 30, 2020

scientists new

A boy child for our leader. What better way of ensuring that he diverts all his energy into making a better world once these tedious groundhog days are behind us?

As we trudge our way through this, there are some common themes in the few serious online conversations we manage to have between the silly memes, videos and emoji quizzes. Foremost among these is speculation about what the future will look like. Given that how we live now is unrecognisable from how we did six weeks ago, such conjecture can only ever be an exercise in blue-sky thinking. All the same, hoping for the best is no bad thing.

At some point, Johnson junior will have to go to school. What we teach him there, and how well he and his peers learn it, will shape future generations. We’ve got to hope that what’s on offer will serve the needs of our future society, because one thing we’ve leant the hard way in recent weeks is that we all need to understand science better – and we need more scientists.

Ah, scientists. You’ve got to love them with their ill-fitting lab coats, test tubes, geeky glasses and wild hair. The government gathered some together almost as soon as they could under the aptly and reassuringly named SAGE group; the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies. Professor This and Sir That; they’d surely know what to do.

It turns out that, who’d have though it, not all scientists are the same. Professor Anthony Costello’s illuminating article reveals that of the 23 SAGE members, 13 are government employees, some of whom could possibly find their judgement inhibited by the looming presence of Svengali Cummings at their meetings. There are no molecular virologists or immunologists; intensive care specialists are missing as are social scientists with expertise in community engagement. No logistician is present and for a disease that disproportionately affects ethnic minority communities, there is only one person from such a background. It goes without saying that men outnumber women two to one.

As the minutes of SAGE meetings are not publicly available, it is impossible to know how open and honest their deliberations may be. But when government ministers earnestly say that they are ‘following the science’ they do so as if ‘science’ were a concept framed by holy writ and carved in tablets of stone, not something that is multi-faceted, contestable and, above all, contingent upon a range of shifting, uncertain social circumstances. We do ourselves a disservice if we do this ‘following’ without understanding that science is not necessarily hard, indisputable and enduring fact.

And it’s in the understanding of science that the schools of the future will have their part to play. For the last year for which there are completed figures (2018), over 700,000 children took GCSEs in both English and Maths, compared with 400,000 taking all science subjects. At A level, 90,000 students opted for maths while 58,000 studied biology; 67,000 for English, 35,000 for physics. Of degrees being studied in 2017, 333,000 were in business, only just below that in all medical related sciences. To be clear, we need knowledge and graduates in all areas, but in a world where now know that pandemics definitely do happen and where global warming continues unabated, we’ll need as much appreciation of the science as we can get.

Scientists are rare in the higher echelons of our state politics. With the exception of Pritti Patel, all but one of the holders of all the major offices are privately educated and all went to Oxford. None of them has a science degree. Even their most loyal supporters cannot pretend that they have done anything other than preside over a dreadful mess in handling the effects of the virus, even allowing for its unprecedented nature and especially given their head start with knowledge gained from elsewhere. Whichever way you slice it, a deficiency in terms of scientific knowledge, and an ignorance of the procedures and reviews which are at the root of scientific practice, must have been an impediment to their approach. And no, I’m not going to leave off banging on about the careless, dangerous contempt for experts which was at the heart of their bluff, Trumpesque populism in the months prior to their election.

So, let’s send little Johnson off to schools that put science at the centre of a rounded, balanced curriculum that has been adapted to a changing, challenged world. Better a speccy, wild-haired nerd than a Bullingdon bully unfamiliar with science, presiding over catastrophic fatality rates.

One response to “Science -never plain, not simple. We need to know that.”

  1. […] at the time of writing!) due out in July. Some readers of this blog have found their way to my political blog which receives mixed reviews […]

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